GA Chair Discusses Public Relations, Cultures and Corporate Social Responsibility on his tour of Asia
“Public Relations, Cultures and Corporate Social Responsibility”
Chair, Global Alliance For Public Relations and Communication Management
Senior Counsel, Ketchum at:
International Islamic University of Malaysia
Kuala Lampur, Malaysia
February 1, 2010
Universiti Teknologi Mara
Kuala Lampur, Malaysia
February 2, 2010
London School of Public Relations
February 4, 2010
“My central message here today, and wherever I travel for The Global
Alliance, is that we can – and we must – all learn from each other…”
“In a democratic society, citizens can disagree on everything, except the
way to resolve their differences – and that must be in non-violent mode
through dialogue, compromise and the evolution of reciprocal
“Yes, over time, nations do change. Cultures do evolve. Societies and their
political and economic systems do develop. Often, public relations
professionals can help…”
“Selamat Pagi” to all! [Good morning in Malaysian]
I thank you very much for your kind invitation to be with you today. I
especially enjoy visits to institutions of higher learning where students
bring energy, curiosity and optimism, and the faculty and administration
bring wisdom, experience and tradition.
I’m especially enthused about being here today because I have visited
colleges and universities around the world -- from Cyprus to New Zealand
and from Canada to Argentina -- but have never had the pleasure of doing
so in this region.
You may have noted that for my subject today, I’ve chosen to address,
“Public Relations, Cultures and Corporate Social Responsibility”. I hope that
will stimulate some vigorous discussion in the time we’ve reserved for
dialogue, because I realize that there may well be many points of view on
what I will offer.
My central message here today, and wherever I travel for The Global
Alliance, is that we can -- and we must – all learn from each other.
There are many ways to parse that message, to elaborate on it, and I
will try to do that with you in three inter-related sections of these remarks.
They are, of course, the components of the title: Public Relations. Cultures.
and Corporate Social Responsibility.
First, let’s begin by addressing the root meaning of “public relations”.
Yes, this is a term that is greatly mis-understood at many levels in many
parts of the world. And, as we know, the term “public relations” has many
But the literal interpretation of the term is revealing. “Public relations”
surely centers on relationships. And, I would contend, reciprocal
relationships – “win-win” relationships . And to expand this even further,
reciprocal relationships built on two-way communications between an
organization and the groups of people – “the publics” – who are either
“stakeholders” in that organization or influential, external “interested
But permit me to take a step back for a moment. Attending a
conference at early point in my career – many decades ago – I was greatly
impressed with the way public relations can be positioned in society.
The speaker was the distinguished author and public relations
counselor, Alan Center. Here’s what he told us, (paraphrased): “All
professions must serve a vital social purpose. Medicine has health as its
purpose in society. Law has order.
“And public relations … public relations has, as its social objective,
harmony.” Harmony that results from policy and performance that balances
self-interest with the interests of others – and, importantly, with the public
That keystone principle is not just some anachronistic ideal. It has great
life and “legs” even today. It is scalable. It can be applied from the
simplest commercial transaction – say, in marketing – all the way to
international relations – via public diplomacy.
And in these troubled days of international and inter-cultural mis-
understanding, mistrust -- and, tragically, violence – isn’t more harmony
what we must all work for?
I have observed – yes, at a distance – the sad divide among citizens in
several countries caused by issues such as minarets in Switzerland, head
scarves in France and perceived blasphemy in this region. These are very
serious issues and I’m not naïve enough to believe that they can be solved
easily by brief, or sporadic, or banal dialogue.
But in a democratic society, citizens can disagree on everything, except
the way to resolve their differences – and that must be in non-violent
mode through dialogue, compromise and the evolution of reciprocal
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could extend that liberal, humanistic
principle to all international and ideological disputes?
It would be easy to be discouraged by today’s violent clashes around
the world. But there are also examples of how -- yes, over a considerable
period of time – what appeared to be insoluble, violent conflicts have been
settled, even if only precariously.
Northern Ireland, for instance. And, closer to home here, Sri Lanka --
where the first presidential peacetime election in three decades was held
last month; yes, the outcome has been disputed, but so far without
Global Public Relations
The discussion of public relations here today would hardly be complete
without addressing the fact that arguably, public relations has now become
a global profession.
Not surprisingly, I think this may be best manifested by the
organization I have the honor to chair – The Global Alliance for Public
Relations and Communication Management. So just a brief words about the
Global Alliance -- and I’m very pleased to note that Shameem Abdul Jalil is
a very active member of the Alliance Board of Directors. And she has been
most energetic and creative in arranging and implementing my visit here in
(Kuala Lampur/Jakarta). Of course, she has been a public relations leader
in this region for many years.
I’m also very pleased to note that The Institute of Public Relations
Malaysia/Public Relations Society of Indonesia is an active member of our
The Global Alliance is a confederation of such professional public
relations association ion some sixty-five countries around the world
dedicated to raising standards and advocating for the public relations
professionals. We do that with many services for our members, especially
in our ethics protocol, analysis of public relations practice in twenty-
countries, certification standards and a soon-to-be published
comprehensive study of how public relations is being taught around the
world in universities like this one.
But the GA’s signature event is our World Public Relations Forum. This
year it will be held June 14th and 15th in Stockholm, Sweden, in association
with our member organization, The Swedish Public Relations Association.
The Forum, with delegates and outstanding speakers from around the
world, will be a truly memorable event. For two main reasons: First, it will
be truly interactive: Every delegate will be able to participate in the
development of the Forum outcome – “The Stockholm Accords”. And
second, “The Stockholm Accords” will have a lasting impact on how we will
shape the future of public relations because the Accords will analyze how,
in the new concept of the “communicative organization” our profession can
help achieve organizational success in the new “value network” society.
An Interconnected World
This emphasis on global public relations is essentially a reflection, a
recognition, of how very linked the global society has become. It’s
indisputable that countries all over the world are increasingly linked by:
Foreign Aid and Development
and, of course, Information Technology.
Incidentally, on information technology: We have a silly aphorism in
my country that says, “What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas.”
Not only is that not true in Las Vegas but, as you know, it’s not true
anywhere in the world. Because , with the ever-evolving information
technology of today and tomorrow, what happens anywhere in world can
be known momentarily wherever there is a cell phone, an IPod, a
blackberry or a computer screen. Meaning everywhere.
Think of Iran’s June election and how the demonstrators got the word
And just to complete that list of global linkages we must,
unfortunately, acknowledge that we are also connected by:
With all that, I’m nevertheless, sometimes confronted by public
relations practitioners who are so immersed in local, tactical concerns that
they are not interested in global public relations issues. My reply: “You had
better care about international public relations because chances are very
good that your boss, or your boss ‘s boss cares about it.”
These days, many major public relations counseling firms are
generating up to half of their revenue from beyond their national borders.
Cultures Do Evolve
You’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve morphed into the second part of my
remarks, which I’ve called “Cultures.”
In this section, I offer the central thought that the public relations root
principle is adaptable to many different social, economic, political – and
cultural – systems and traditions. In a word, it is protean.
Here is an example from my own company. Ketchum now has six
offices in China. (Now, I am old enough to remember the Cultural
Revolution in China and even stories of Mao’s “long march” so I find that
Even more remarkable, however, is one of our most important growth
services in China. You see, Ketchum counsels Chinese government-owned
companies how to be transparent when they seek to become “partially
private” by raising capital on various international stock exchanges. It
won’t surprise you to know that the necessary degree of transparency in
that transaction is quite foreign to most Chinese government–owned
Yes, over time, nations do change. Cultures do evolve. Societies and
their political and economic systems do develop. Often, public relations
professionals can help.
We help by finding the common interest between parties and
nourishing it. And we help by developing the two-way communication –
listening as well as projecting – that develops and maintains a relationship.
I think you will agree that this kind of harmony can be a social good.
Here’s a corollary thought. It comes from Valin Nasr, an Iranian-
American professor of international relations at Tufts University. In his new
book, “Forces of Fortune” , subtitled “The Rise of the New Muslim Middle
Class and What It will Mean For Our World” he offers the seminal
proposition that in our inter-connected world, over the long term, economic
integration may well trump ideological differences.
Of course, he says it much better than I. So here’s a brief excerpt from
the book’s summary:
“…there is a vital but unseen rising force in the Islamic world – a new
business-minded middle class – that is building a vibrant new Muslim world
economy… They are building a whole new economy… and their distinctive
blending of Islam and capitalism is the key to bringing lasting reform and
to defeating fundamentalism. They are the people ... the West can and
must do business with.”
Fortuitously, I read that book on my way to a Global Alliance visit to
Turkey earlier this year. I say, fortuitously, because Turkey, like
Malaysia/Indonesia seems to be manifesting Mr. Nasr’s concept. And,
during my side-visit to the impressive mosques in Istanbul, while touring
the magnificent Blue Mosque, I was stopped in my tracks by this inscription
of the words of The Prophet etched in white calligraphy at the main exit:
“A merchant is the beloved of God.”
And as I was leaving the mosque – click! – a quote from a U.S.
Diplomat about a decade ago came to mind:
“Let us work to make the world so economically-interdependent that
war will go out of style.”
Can public relations professionals, in our day-to-day work help connect
the cultures – the societies – from which those seminal thoughts have
come. Perhaps not directly. Perhaps not every day. But with the creativity –
-- and, again, the instinct for harmony -- that is inherent in professional
public relations we can make a contribution.
Public Relations as Public Diplomacy
There is a stimulating opportunity in this direction facing the
international public relations professional. It is in the area of public service
and, more specifically, public diplomacy.
However, let me say quickly, I am not talking about propaganda.
Propaganda is one-way communication from a society where dissent is
suppressed or not tolerated.
No, I’m referring to the public diplomacy that is genuinely people-to-
people communication freely undertaken in the interest of mutual
understanding and – yes, harmony.
This kind of public diplomacy is surely our “turf.”
After all, where is it written that some of the most informed,
experienced and articulate communications professionals around the world
should not play a role in the ”global marketplace if ideas.”
Where is that stone tablet that says that well-prepared and motivated
communicators – that is, international public relations professionals –
should not help in the development of what has been called nations’ “soft
power” of addressing hearts and minds?
One of the best examples with which I’ve been involved is the current
“Arab and American Business Fellowship” program recently cited as a “best
practice” initiative in the Istanbul United Nations Alliance of Civilizations
This Arab-American fellowship program is a mutual exchange in which
young business leaders from the Arab world and American counterparts
exchange home-and-home visits, learning of each others’ business
philosophies and operations and, not incidentally, the respective cultures.
The program is sponsored by Business For Diplomatic Action, a private-
sector initiative composed of leaders from public relations, advertising,
academia, government, ”think tanks” and civil society organizations.
Public Relations and CSR
You may have noticed that by referring to Business for Diplomatic
Action, I have slyly opened up the third sub-text of my remarks – corporate
Maybe at first glance CSR – incidentally also known as sustainable
development, corporate citizenship and other designations – may appear to
be a bit of a “stretch” in our dialogue here today. But if we agree that the
task of the public relations professional is to operate at the interface
between an organization and its publics – as it were, almost as a
membrane – then we can’t ignore one of the most significant changes in
the development of capitalism.
And in my judgment, that is exactly what corporate social
responsibility, by any of its names, represents. It is nothing less than a
recognition that companies must now respond to a set of public demands
that didn’t exist in strength a generation ago. They must achieve their
traditional business objectives and behave positively in society.
Today, in the “accelerated culture” of the digital age, consumers and
citizens are always looking for – and are empowered in finding – the next
relationship. In such relationships with companies, reputation is now
greatly valued along with the quality and price of the product or service
And that corporate reputation is frequently based on how the company
contributes to – or, at least, does not impede -- social progress in the
So CSR issues and programs abound. Energy conservation.
Environmental protection. Human rights and labor rights. Even cause-
related marketing, to name just a few.
As I was preparing these remarks, I saw a fascinating article on the
subject in a recent issue of Fortune magazine. Headline: “Why Doing Good
is Good For Business.” Here’s an excerpt relating to a leading CSR expert,
Dov Seidman :
“Siedman has built a highly successful business on the theory that in
today’s wired and transparent global economy, companies that
“outbehave” their competitors ethically will also tend to outperform them
financially… He’s right that how you behave can be a real competitive
“He contends that the rise of information technology has made good
behavior more important because it has become increasingly hard to hide
bad behavior. Ask Wall Street…
“[But] in a world where disgruntled employees and unhappy customers
can trash you globally in the time it takes to dash off a nasty blog posting
or upload as cell phone video, it’s becoming much harder to manage
reputation the old-fashioned way.”
(Parenthetically, you’ve no doubt noticed that I have not ventured to
offer extended comment on the fast evolving information technology. For
two reasons: I thought it better to simply show its significance in a specific
organizational setting – such as corporate social responsibility; and I’m
willing to wager that just about everyone in this room under the age of
seventy knows far more about social media and social networking than I
will ever know.)
Just a few more comments about CSR and public relations:
Some of those comments in the Fortune article seem essentially defensive.
But there is also a “flip side” to support the commitment to CSR. It is that
many important corporate stakeholders confer positive value on it.
Customers and employees, or course, but perhaps surprisingly, an
increasing number of shareholders as well.
Again, one can’t be naïve. These shareholders insist not only on
positive social outcomes, but also a comparable return on their
investments. And generally, that it is what the Socially Responsible
Investing mutual funds are generating.
These SRI funds vary quite considerably. Some relate to the ethical
framework of religious orders, others to the priorities of environmental or
other no-governmental organizations.
Not surprisingly, governments are insisting not only on socially
responsible performance by companies, but also regular reporting of
policies and performance in these endeavors. For example, last week, the
U.S. Securities Exchange Commission announced that it will now require
that public companies report regularly on their projected liabilities
connected with climate change.
Finally, if there is any doubt that public relations can play a central role
in CSR, surely the global proliferation of corporate annual “Social Reports”
or “Public Reports”, detailing CSR performance and aspirations, is evidence
of professional communications management. There are reportedly over
4,000 such annual reports published around the world.
There is also the natural linkage between CSR and crisis and issue
management, both well-established public relations practices. Because the
company truly committed to the preventive benefits of CSR will benefit by
addressing social change before an issue becomes a crisis.
Having consumed so much of your valuable time, I now hope that we
will still have an opportunity to an exchange of views on these and other
subjects of interest to you.
But with your indulgence, I’d like to conclude on a somewhat
After the Global Alliance’s Stockholm World Public Relations Forum in
June, I will have just one more year as Global Alliance Chair to try to
champion public relations as important to organizational success and a
contributor to a more collaborative global society.
My hope, in making visits to important venues around the world, like
this week in Malaysia and Indonesia -- again, arranged through Shameem’s
outstanding efforts -- is that students of public relations and the next
generations of public practitioners will embrace that mission.
And so, in summing up all the great potential for global public relations
that I have attempted to offer to you today, I have but one regret:
I wish I that I was starting in public relations all over again.