Pete Wilby reflects on a recent Economist review of a new book, Supercapitalism by Robert Reich. The argument in the book, that capitalism affects democratic power effectively reflects a society comprised of consumers rather than citizens.
This is nothing new as an idea. Adam Curtis’ series “Century of the Self” confirms this was the stated aim of US government and business in the early 20th century, with Edward Bernays among those using PR techniques to manage the masses.
It is interesting to see Reich’s economic argument used in relation to the role of business in society and the concept of “social good.”
As Wilby highlights, the book challenges the concept of CSR, which has pretty much been accepted as a way of doing business in recent decades – despite Milton Friedman’s capitalist claims that it is not the role of business but that of government.
The focus on corporate responsibility has shifted the attention of social activists entirely towards pressurising businesses to solve social problems on the basis of goodwill generated, rather than focusing on the necessity for governments, and citizens, to be the primary drivers of social change.
Many in public relations have seen CSR as a way of improving reputation (and their own standing) through supporting community initiatives. Businesses have sought to associate themselves with good causes and the not for profit sector has welcomed the financial support of commerce. It has been labelled as win-win-win.
More recent arguments that CSR needs to be about genuine corporate behaviour not publicity-seeking initiatives have promoted the strategy as “good business”. Companies are still primarily pursuing profits, but in a situation where the corporate interest happens to coincide with benefiting the rest of society.
The Economist article challenges Reich in many areas of his argument – and presents CSR as a way of encouraging businesses to recognise the value of enlightened self-interest. Businesses have a vested interest in solving many social problems.
Regardless of whether CSR is proven to help society or just help businesses, it is clear that for public relations practitioners, it is not enough to focus on publicity initiatives that promote a feel good aura around companies. They need to understand the economics, politics and social dimensions underpinning the role of business, and PR, in the modern world.