The New PR: Factors Complicating Sustainability

Sep 4, 2012 5:00 PM ET
Campaign: The New PR

Posted by John Friedman

The complicating Factors: 

Lack of Consensus on Standards

Globally there is no consensus on what social responsibility is, or how it can be defined across cultures and nationalities. For example, there are those that believe that the obligation exists to give back once a certain level of financial success has been attained. Others believe that true social responsibility is a pathway to success. In the US, a capitalism-based culture has favored the former model, while in European countries in particular the later model reflects the more shared more socially conscious culture on that continent.

There are many who believe that businesses have a moral obligation to advance issues as human rights, gender equality, competitive wages, and the like. This can be hugely problematic for many in lesser-developed or non-Western counties that see may not welcome these new ideas and morays. To them, companies that seek to import different values threaten to destabilize their entire society – religious, politically and socially. And from this perspective, these businesses, through the fault of their own best intentions, are viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility.

A seemingly sensible strategy is one of falling back on regulatory compliance, linking social responsibility goals and objectives to cultural competence; and a desire to demonstrate respect for local cultures, customs and laws. Following this model is not without its pitfalls, however. Companies have found themselves facing outcry back home for engaging in practices overseas that offend the sensibility of shareholder and customers in the States.

This can lead to a troubling situation when a company genuinely believes it self to be socially responsible yet finds itself suffering from criticism leveled by its stakeholders. When there is this kind of disagreement between an organization and its stakeholders over expectations, it becomes an imperative to reconcile. The shift can happen with stunning swiftness and many companies find themselves ill prepared when the perception changes. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and currently #2 on the Fortune 500 list, enjoyed status as one of the world’s most admired companies for years. Seemingly overnight the company was faced with strong criticism for its wages and employee benefits (both of which are well within industry norms) for not doing more to advance these issues. This despite an impressive focus on environmental sustainability; including the use of fuel-efficient trucks, working to reduce waste in both packaging and garbage and pledging to become energy neutral. 

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John Friedman, is an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience.

Friedman has served as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies, ranging from small companies to leading global enterprises, turn their values into successful business models by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices. 

His insights on sustainability issues and strategy are a regular feature on Huffington Post.

Friedman authored the e-publication The New PR which outlines how companies must modify the way they communicate to meet stakeholders' changing expectations through five proven keys for developing programs that replace "spin" with transparency and unlock the full potential of a sustainability program to build reputational capital. Friedman is currently working on a new book Your Backyard Is My Front Yard.

He can be reached at, is @JohnFriedman on Twitter and can be connected on LinkedIn and Facebook