This month Greenwasher considers types of corporate responsibility managers, pressure on astroturfing and shifts towards sustainability as core business

Responsible pigeon holing

Greenwasher has met a lot of corporate responsibility people in the past decade, and these days tends to put them into three categories (which is dangerous to do, but let’s be a little provocative here).

1) The defender. They are the kind of corporate responsibility manager you hire when you don’t want to do much. They dash around involving their firm in various low-level initiatives and obsess about things like the GRI index in their social report, at best. Or they simply provide block tackles from their position within public affairs and oversee some community work. At the end of the day, they are more about defending and maintaining the status quo than making real change. They’ll lead some small steps forward, but not much.

2) The frustrated realist. They have some great ideas about what their company could or should do, but can’t get the traction internally to deliver on it. They get things done almost unnoticed by senior management. Usually there’s someone on, or just below the board, who’s really not interested, and who stymies their ambitions. They get most done where regulation or enforcement looms large, such as on climate change or bribery and corruption. They often don’t stick around for more than the few years in the firm, understandably.

3) The change-maker. These are the interesting executives. They have senior support, from someone who has the ear of the chief executive and turns his or her head, and they are given almost free rein to make a serious impact, as long as they make the business case consistently, and play internal politics with skill and care. If they are lucky, they can begin to make corporate responsibility a core proposition of their business. These are people who have done more than their 10,000 Gladwell hours – the effort required for success according to business writer Malcolm Gladwell – and have talent, and it shows.

We need more of number three in business, clearly. And we will see more of them.

As corporate responsibility matures, we’re seeing these change-maker executives lead real and exciting change.

More power to their elbows.

Shifting from impact to core business

The Harvard Business School blog recently published a good posting about Newsweek’s recent green rankings.

It makes a simple point:

“The Newsweek list defines ‘green’ largely in terms of a company’s efforts to reduce its impact (eg buying green power, recycling, building greener facilities, etc). We believe it’s time to move beyond this approach and begin defining ‘green’ by how well a company is aligning sustainability with its core business by solving society’s environmental challenges and creating shareholder value while doing so.”

Quite so. Corporate responsibility folks in Europe have been saying this for some years now.

Hopefully the fact that this is starting to appear in places such as Harvard Business online means more executives, particularly in the US, will take notice of this idea.

Astroturfing targeted

One the best corporate responsibility terms is in the news, for the right reasons for once.

“Astroturfing”, the creation or use of fake grassroots voices or authentic-looking comment, is a technique used increasingly by PR, advertising and lobbying firms, often acting as proxies for big companies.

Wikipedia defines it as “describing formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous ‘grassroots’ behaviour. Hence the reference to the artificial grass AstroTurf”.

Now some elements of the practice may be under threat from new guidelines issued by the US Federal Trade Commission, whose activities on the topic we also reported last month.

A translation of what these new guidelines might mean in action comes from the Financial Times, which says: “Advertisers, celebrity endorsers and even some internet bloggers will be held liable for false statements they make about products as part of a crackdown by US regulators on deceptive advertising practices. The new rules on the use of testimonials in advertising, released by the Federal Trade Commission, also say that anyone who endorses a product, including celebrities and bloggers, must make explicit the compensation received from companies.”

The FTC wants, according to media, to tackle the use of astroturfing in new/social media, which is growing at an exponential rate. The FT reports: “Spending on social media marketing reached $1.35bn in 2007 and is expected to reach $3.7bn by 2011.”

Companies that have already developed a social media ethics code include Coca-Cola, UPS and IBM, according to the FT.

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