Two developments took place yesterday that aren’t exactly related, but point to an encouraging reinforcement of the principles of transparency. I say encouraging, but really, I’m rather bemused these principles need to be reiterated in such an elementary fashion.
In the first development, the US Supreme Court rejected AT&T’s bid to keep secret the Federal Communications Commission’s records of investigation into the company’s overcharging schools and libraries in Connecticut for internet access and equipment. An industry group had requested information about the investigation under the Freedom of Information Act. The company argued that FOIA should protect it from disclosures that would violate ‘personal privacy’ – a provision in place to protect individuals, and which the company saw as a way to avoid the embarrassment of having to defend what would surely be seen as unethical, illegal and opportunistic (alleged) actions.
AT&T’s argument was that the company should be treated in the same way as an individual would under the law, which isn’t an unreasonable punt to take in light of the court’s current leanings. But apart from being surreal (reminiscent of Lieutenant Commander Data’s quest for his own humanity in Star Trek: The Next Generation), it is a cynical ploy to prevent the public (and yes, competitors) from learning about this rather unsavory affair.
Let me point out that AT&T’s corporate citizenship website touts a wide-ranging program complete with strategic focus areas, challenges, successes and awards, all suggesting a comprehensive commitment to values-based business. You can download AT&T’s corporate goals referencing customer value, ethics and compliance, and youth education among many others, as well as its GRI-based annual citizenship report.
What does it say about a company that goes to the trouble and expense of a Supreme Court battle over the disclosure of ethics-related activities while at the same time maintaining an extensive CR program and communications campaign around the very same issues? And isn’t it interesting that they chose this route thinking it would protect them from criticism, when it surely has done the very opposite, McLibel-style? I for one will be waiting eagerly to see how AT&T handles this one in their next citizenship report (though it might be nice not to have to wait that long).
Yesterday’s second news item was a bit of embarrassment for PR giant Edelman – they of the much-vaunted and influential annual Trust Barometer, not to mention the myriad CR initiatives they have built for blue-chip clients. It seems they were expelled from the UN Global Compact for failure to submit their regular Communication on Progress, which was due a year ago. Today, it transpires (via a tweet, mind you, I don’t have anything more substantial) that Edelman didn’t get UNGC’s emails reminding them to update their COP, so weren’t aware they were in breach of the requirement until hearing about their expulsion yesterday. So apparently they’ll be rectifying the situation post haste.
Let’s just have a look at this in more detail:
1. They didn’t know they were in breach. This means nobody at Edelman pays any attention to the UNGC. It also means they aren’t monitoring their own reputation, since the Global Compact Critics blog was already flagging their missing COP two months ago.
2. If this sort of thing had happened at IBM, Wal-Mart or ExxonMobil, Edelman would rightly point out it’s up to the company to ensure their actions and communications provide a reliable basis for trust, and such mistakes speak to a deeper problem with the underlying issues. As the most recent Trust Barometer highlights, today’s trust landscape is: “different and conditional, premised on what a company does and how it communicates…Trust is no longer a commodity that is acquired, but rather a benefit that is bestowed.” Physician, heal thyself.
3. Edelman has no excuse. When I looked for further information on this story yesterday, I came upon the rather astonishing fact that the company experienced very nearly the same fate in 2008, when they had also run afoul of the COP requirement, again apparently unawares. Richard Edelman’s blog post at the time turns lemons into lemonade by advising companies not to take their “friends in civil society for granted”; to “deal with a problem at the source”; and to “do all of this with speed”. Looks to me like they have yet to take their own advice to heart.
Critics will contend that the real issue is with the Global Compact itself and the “fig leaf” factor it provides for companies not genuinely interested in responsible, accountable behavior; I’m not going to address that here. But I am quite dumbfounded that an organization of such expertise in corporate reputation could misunderstand so fully what’s at stake with such a program, could manage its affairs so sloppily, and could do it all not once but repeatedly. And I’m afraid it does increase the critics’ concern that the whole thing is a hollow exercise.
Between AT&T and Edelman, I feel like I’ve dropped down some sort of CR rabbit hole, where the most fundamental truisms are lost amid a flurry of self-defeating and irrelevant behaviors. Are these cases the exception, or a rather more troubling norm?