Storytelling at the core of corporate CSR branding

Miami Beach, Florida Hand made sign advocating...

Image via Wikipedia

The story corporate story should be at the core of any CSR effort. It is what I would call the cement that holds everything together inside the organisation and makes it possible to communicate with a degree of persuasion with its audience.

If one looks at storytelling as elements of branding one can distinguish three elements Culture, Identity and Image.

Culture being the stories that employees tell each other from the old t the new guy or among the old-timers or is the ones told in the employee magazine as examples of good cultural behaviour. It is also the informal stories that circulate among employees or close associates about how we saved the day by some act of heroism or how we beat the people from accounting at the annual summer go-card trip.  All these stories being told everyday at all levels of the organisations is building, reshaping and reinforcing corporate culture.

The Identity is what employees belie to be unique to being in just this organisation. One can call the corporate identity the reflection of the stories that is being told. One could say that they are the collective way of interpreting the stories we call our own which outsiders might not understand the fine details of. One cannot totally distinguish culture and identity from each other, as they are interlinked and always evolving. However, one can project or at least try to project ones identity on the surroundings as explicit examples of corporate culture.

This leads to Image, which are the pictures outsiders get of the organisation when it hears the corporate story being told. Stakeholders listen to the stories being told but are also taking part in its reproduction creating a mirror of the corporate image that the organisations identity can use as tool for affirming or renegotiating its culture and its feeling of being one.

In order to analyse and understand corporate storytelling one can use the actantial model developed by Greimas, which basically breaks down the story into six different but essential components.

The axis of desire, which refers to the subject or hero (who can be both good or bad) and the object, which is the thing he/she/it, desires. The axis of power that can be broken down into a helper or the person or thing that helps our hero and the opponent that is the person/thing trying to stop our hero from achieving his goal. The helper assists in achieving the desired junction between the subject and object; the opponent hinders the same.

Finally we have the axis of knowledge that is composed of the sender and the receiver. The sender is the person or thing that is requesting the establishment of the junction between our hero and the object he desires. The receiver is the element for which the quest is being undertaken.

Using this framework of understanding one could for example look at the most prominent CSR stories of 2010 the BP oil spill or the Google battle for free speech.

BP‘s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Deepwater Horizon was one of the world’s largest ever oil spills, and understandably this story absolutely dominated 2010. Not only did it put a final nail in the coffin for BP’s once vaunted sustainability reputation, but it heralded a major rethink about the viability of deep sea drilling. BP didn’t cover itself in glory by failing to come up with a realistic remedy until far too late – and ended up picking up most of the tab, thereby putting paid to the usual assumption that pollution is simply an ‘externality’ of business.

Here the CSR policy of BP could be seen as a helper in telling the story that the company was trying to communicate. However, the hero or BP executive management was not able to use the help they were getting and ultimately failed to keep the BP CSR brand intact. That the power to decide if BP was allowed to win or fail in the efforts was given to the local fishermen by a combination the statements in the CSR policy and the medias efforts to find a compelling case to write about.

Google’s battle for free speech

Google’s withdrawal from China at the beginning of the year was a landmark decision in the battle for free speech on the web. A real clash of titans, no other story this year illustrated better the clash between government and big business around human rights issues.

In the Google example we have a case were the CSR policy was used successful even though the case did not come out as a commercial success for the company. When the company was challenged on its policy it stood by its values and identity and ultimately was able to prevail as a ethical brand taking a decision to withdraw from china rather than compromise its ethical standpoint. The winner becomes the Google identity and brand which is viewed its stakeholders as a company who puts people before profit.

These stories and many more show that CSR is an essential part of the corporate brand and that it is central in the story that we tell. Also that the policy is not something that corporate executive should take lightly but that it is actually a document which quite literally can help or break a company brand.

Advertisements

Has the CSR movement really won the battle or have they lost the war?

Bank of America Tower

Image via Wikipedia

In the article from the Economist from 2005 Clive Cook argued that the CSR movement have won the battle for ideas about the virtues company and not least the harts and minds of executives around the world.

As Cook put it in 2005 “CSR commands the attention of executives everywhere—if their public statements are to be believed—and especially that of the managers of multinational companies headquartered in Europe or the United States. Today corporate social responsibility, if it is nothing else, is the tribute that capitalism everywhere pays to virtue.”

And there is no doubt that CSR have made its way into almost every crack of the business process from Human Resources and employee benefits to product development and production. These seem to be no escape from CSR everywhere one goes there seem to be a big sign that boasts about how corporations in some obscure way bring good to the world. Reports are being issued, social media are bring utilized and campaigns are being run just to boast about how this company is creating shared value or is leading the fight against green house gasses.

It would seem that the CSR movement have not only got the a good grip in the tail of the business beast but that it is also able to make a good buck for itself along the way.

“The winners are the charities, non-government organisations and other elements of what is called civil society that pushed for CSR in the first place. These well-intentioned groups certainly did not invent the idea of good corporate citizenship, which goes back a long way. But they dressed the notion in its new CSR garb and moved it much higher up the corporate agenda.”

But now six years down the road and one maybe two economic crisis’s down the road it the effects have not been what Cook describes. Companies have not flogged around the charities, the NGOs or CSOs in order to create a new type of development system in the face of government cut downs. In fact there have been a tendency to streamline efforts into the main business process to search for the ever-elusive business case.

While the CSR movement had hoped that companies would come to them because they had to power to publicly humiliate them through exposure in the press and other media this has not happened. Instead business have initialised CSR as part of the conditions of doing business like it has done with marketing, lobbying, employee benefits, supply chain management, etc. One could say that in public-relations terms, their victory is total but the war on ideas was not really won by the CSR moment in the end. CSR did not change the face of corporations in any significant way. So when Cook argues that “…their opponents never turned up. Unopposed, the CSR movement has distilled a widespread suspicion of capitalism into a set of demands for action.” It is a truth with modifications it would be more accurate to say that corporations reorganised.

One can just take a quick look at some of the so-called “green” companies that have been hailed by the CSR

moment as frontrunners. Companies like BP that even adopted a green logo but ended up with a huge crisis on their hands in the Gulf of Mexico. Novo Nordisk that have been instrumental in the CSR reporting scene and the fight against diabetes that seem to go from one bribery scandal to the next on a almost continues basis or Bank of America who were in the centre of the financial crisis creating bank products that they themselves had a hard time understanding and in the end lead to the fall of several major financial institutions around the world.

And maybe it was because that they did not really believed in the idea of corporate social responsibility that they were lead astray. That “they were starting to suspect that they have been conned. Civil-society advocates of CSR increasingly accuse firms of merely paying lip-service to the idea of good corporate citizenship.” So corporate executives started to think how to make the best of it, how can I “conn” everybody back, so that was what the executives did. They might have called it something different but in reality they started to dress their unsustainable products in a think “green” coating just think of the three companies I just mentioned and the companies they have been running while at the same time doing some of the most unethical acts in corporate history.

We should not blame the companies for being what they have always been. All companies are in some way or another born out of the basic idea of greed that the owner somewhere along they way would make a buck or two from what the

company was doing. So companies continue to be build around the idea that the main interest should be to make some kind of profit from its activities. “When commercial interests and broader social welfare collide, profit comes first.” And we seemed to forget that when everything went fine and that there would be a price to pay when markets started to go downhill.

As Cook so rightful said but might not have fully realised the corporations have not changed their DNA they are still the same beast that they have always been. What we need to learn is that the state, society, the environment and business need to co-exist like everything else in the world but that we will never live in perfect harmony with each other but constantly need to keep each other accountable for our actions no matter what role we play. So when Cook says “Capitalism does not need the fundamental reform that many CSR advocates wish for. If CSR really were altering the bones behind the face of capitalism—sawing its jaws, removing its teeth and reducing its bite—that would be bad: not just for the owners of capital, who collect the company’s profits, but also for society at large.” I think that this is even more true now that it was when the word were spoken in 2005 when we really did not fear the big fundamental chang

 

es that we soon after experienced.

Private business on a leash

Business needs frames and structures that they can relate to not given control over and it is the role of the state and society to constantly provide and negotiate these in order for business to strive. Like a cage in a zoo business need to be reminded that not all animals can be give the same level of freedom no matter how cute or well dressed they appear to be. A tiger however cute is still a very deadly beast and it is the same with business no matter how well one dresses up a oil company it is still producing a product which eventually will dry out and pollute atmosphere. “Private enterprise requires a supporting infrastructure of laws and permissions, and more generally the consent of electorates, to pursue its business goals, whatever they may be.” The last thing they need to be given the key to the cage under the pretence of CSR and corporate sustainability reporting and then be left to govern themselves.

Governments and interstate institutions like the federal government in the US and European union should realise that they play an important art in creating these structures that by hindering the movement of business that actually help business being sustainable. For fare too long have governments give over power to private business for them to control and decide what was good and what was not. This has only resulted in agony and pain for the populations of the world creating huge scandals, systems without transparency and business who does not realise the consequences of their actions.

Playing with fire in the artic – Oil industry continues to make mistakes

Artificially coloured topographical map of the...

Image via Wikipedia

At the same time that the Germans announced that they will cease nuclear energy operation within a decade because of a disaster happening thousand kilometres away in japan the exploration for oil continues in one of the most environmental sensitive areas of the world.

Cairn Energy is the only producer so far that have been granted permission to drill for oil offshore in Greenland.  A possible discovery will please the oil industry, which has long believed that the Arctic harbours some of the last huge reserves. Analysts estimated there could be over 20bn barrels of oil equivalent in the region.

The find will also delight the local Greenland government (and to a certain extend the Danish as well as they have a huge stake in local affairs), which is desperate to diversify its fragile economy away from a dependence on fishing, tourism and cash hand-outs from Denmark, which still formally has sovereignty over the world’s largest island.

While Cairn Energy has the rights to drill it is considering selling a large chunk of its Greenland oil exploration operations to a company such as Shell or a state-owned producer as it seeks to spread the risk and cost of developing in the Arctic region. However this will lead to less transparency on who has responsibility if some of the risks that the Danish environmental ministry have identified come true. In a environmental impact report that was issues when oil exploration was still being considered it was concluded that:

“The high concentration of oil in accidental spills represents a serious environmental threat, until the oil is diluted and/or degraded. Low temperature, ice and lack of infrastructure will generally make the impact of oil spills in the Arctic longer lasting than at lower latitudes. The spreading, fate and impact of oil spilled in different habitats differ, with the marine spill having the potential to impact large areas and resources far away from the spill site, while terrestrial spill are generally confined to limited areas.” Danish Environmental Ministry

In the analysis it was stressed that the increased traffic that oil exploration would in it self constitute a danger to local environment even though no accident occurred. Basically there would be spills of oil and other chemicals just from the ship traffic and other activity.

“The ocean is stressed by a myriad of chemicals of anthropogenic origin, oil being one. The major sources of anthropogenic oil and oil-derived compounds are chronic ones, such as tanker operations, sewage outfalls, urban runoff, and atmospheric outfall. In the 1980’s it was estimated that an average of 3.3 million metric tons of oil enter the ocean each year (Steering Committee for the Petroleum in the Marine Environment, 1985 National Research Council, Washington DC, p. 82). 45% of this input is believed to enter the ocean as a result transportation related activities with at least 22% intentionally re- leased as a function of normal tanker operational discharges. Only 12% enters directly from tanker accidents. Another 36% come from runoff and municipal and industrial wastes including oil refineries and 8% is believed to be from natural sources such as oil seeps. Atmospheric outfall and offshore oil production account for the remainder of the annual input.”

But this would only put further pressure on an already fragile artic environment. “Oil exploration in the Arctic may present serious environmental hazards if a major oil spill occurs, particularly if the oil spill coincides with the occurrence of concentrations of ecologically important and vulnerable species in the ice or at the coast.”

And even though there are some concerns and unknowns about how this impact should be calculated there a wide consensus that we need to gather as much information as possible and make artic oil exploration as transparent as possible. There for it is of concern when Greenpeace in a effort to draw attention to the area is not granted access to basic information from the rig in operation. As a spokes person from Greenpeace puts it.

“We have met with the drill manager and requested a copy of the oil spill plan, which we assume he has on board, yet once again we have been refused even sight of it. What is Cairn Energy trying to hide? We have phoned, written, faxed, emailed and now even paid a visit to the rig to get a plan that should be in the public domain and should be subject to independent verification and public scrutiny.”

Based on the poor ethics record of the oil-industry in general they should know better than to keep such information to themselves particularly in a area were the attention of NGO, Governments and the media is so intense. And one should think they could afford some a fairly good system of information and transparency when they look at making around 2340 Billion USD in turnover in a best scenario case.

Effective communication in a world of imperfect systems

So what is the difference between systems and communication? Well, the problem with systems is that they are unable to predict or function in situations where the organization is faced with a situation it does not know about. For most people it is hard to understand why BP could let a simple pressure valve determine the future image of the corporation. When one look at the situation that BP was faced with it was not the failure of the system that was the problem but it was the inability to understand the communicative risk that was involved.

BP or Transocean as the drilling company is called, knew from the systems that when they decided to cut costs and not maintain this simple safety feature that there was a certain chance that if a accident would happened they would be unable to shut down the flow of oil. Because Transocean did not understand the communicative aspect of such an incident happening there cost-benefit analysis did not take into account that the risk was not only to the rig and surrounding environment, but also to the reputation and image of themselves and their biggest client BP. This failure of comprehension was the biggest mistake that the company made when they decided to rely on only there systems to give information about the processes.

To me it is the combination systems and effective organizational communication that will enable companies to identify and counter future events. The systems will tell you what you already know while organizational communication collects new knowledge and ensures that it is effectively spread to the people who needs to know and can act. Of cause this requires the right type of managers and leaders but I’m convinced that leaders who are unable to work and comprehend these two aspects will cease to exist thorough a Darwinian process that have been in progress for the past ten years and that will continue for the next ten to come.

Transocean the Unethical Company of 2010

The drilling company behind the 2010 BP disaster has issued the agenda for their annual meeting (Transocean_2011)and it is somewhat of a horror to see. The executive committee thinks that they did such a good job in 2010 that they have granted themselves over 43 million USD in compensation. Based on the 9,3 billion USD the company had in revenues in the same year. On top of that they took a substantial amount of money out as part of their long-term incentive plan.

Mr. Newman (President and Chief Executive Officer) . . . . . . . . . . .$5,400,000

Mr. Rosa (Chairman of the board). . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$1,500,000

Mr. Brown (Executive Vice President, Legal & Administration).  .$1,500,000

Mr. Bobillier (Executive Vice President, Asset and Performance). $1,500,000

Mr. Toma (Executive Vice President, Global Business). . . . . . . . . . $1,200,000

Ms. Richard  (Senior Vice President, Human Resources and Information

Technology)…… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ……$1,200,000 

For the compensation of non-employee directors for 2010 was 4,254,066 USD.

A long-standing reputation for safety

So did Transocean learn anything in the past year? Well when investigating the document they issued it could be interesting to look at how they precise themselves in the area of safety. And behold there is a paragraph in the executive summary on the high lights of 2010.

“We are the world’s largest offshore oil and gas drilling contractor and the leading provider of drilling management services worldwide. We provide drilling services, including the equipment and personnel for operations, to our customers—the oil and gas companies throughout the world. We have a long-standing reputation for safety and for being able to manage and deliver on extraordinarily complex offshore drilling projects in challenging environments. Our vision is to be universally recognized for innovation and excellence in unlocking the world’s offshore resources.”

I think that the people they asked about safety can’t have been the US government, all the residents along the Mexican gulf including the local fishermen nor can they have asked all the scientists, experts or NGOs that have been involved in the clean-up.

This statement just shows displays the complete arrogance of Transocean and its executive board about the people they are affecting. In my mind (and I think in a lot of others) they should be sued until the end of days for what they have done.

Keeping your money safe

But luck-be-hold the board and executive committee have already taken this into account by proposing that shareholders should not be able to sue them for their activities in 2010. Or formulated as an agenda point it look like this:

“Agenda Item 2: Discharge of the Members of the Board of Directors and Executive Management from Liability for Activities during Fiscal Year 2010.

As is customary for Swiss corporations and in accordance with article 698, para. 2, item 5 of the Swiss Code of Obligations, shareholders are requested to discharge the members of the Board of Directors and our executive management from liability for their activities during fiscal year 2010.

The pending shareholder derivative claims allege the breach by our directors of their fiduciary duties based on allegations that our directors failed to monitor safety risks, including risks related to the Company’s blowout preventers, and made misleading statements regarding the Company’s safety risks, the safety of the blowout preventers, and the Company’s financial condition. In addition, other allegations have been made against us in investigations and other contexts that are publicly available and could form the basis of similar claims against our directors and executive management.”

So if any critical shareholder world be out there thinking about sue the company for its mismanagement and poor governance in 2010 then forget about it.

A final insult

These statements just underline the ethical perceptions that the top of the company has on all its stakeholders.

“We will never forget the brave crewmembers of the Deepwater Horizon, nor will we cease in our efforts to ensure such an incident never occurs again. The lingering pain of the Macondo tragedy reinforces our efforts to conduct operations in an incident-free environment, all the time, everywhere.” And “It remains our view that Transocean is contractually indemnified against all claims stemming from the environmental and economic impacts of the hydrocarbons spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from the Macondo well after the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon.”

I hereby nominate Transocean management and its executive board of directors as the unethical company of the year for their outstanding performance in avoiding all decency and totally ignoring, and disregarding their key stakeholders.