Does CSR help society or just business?

Pete Wilby reflects on a recent Economist review of a new book, 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 “” confirms this was the stated aim of US government and business in the early 20th century, with  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.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

3 thoughts on “Does CSR help society or just business?”

  1. Interesting. I’ve not read the review or the book. But recall Milton Freidman saying at one point that CSR was fraud, either the company was lying and only doing it to gain a reputation for CSR for its own selfish ends or the directors were defrauding the shareholders by spending their money in ways that were unmandated by the shareholders.

  2. Gracchi,

    You are right that Milton Friedman was adament that CSR was unmandated by the shareholders – although we do see increasing pressure these days from the corporate “owner” for responsible behaviour. There are increasing aspects of CSR that reflect legal compliance also – such as employee rights – and, in some cases, going beyond what is the minimum can offer competitive advantage. The Tesco Computers for School initiative in its early years was definitely good for business as well as the community.

  3. I’ve been writing about this too over the last couple of days. Have you seen the latest full page advertisements in the national press this week from M & S stating they are helping fund schools in Uganda? They have been running for several days, must have cost a fortune, no site of Twiggy in a cardigan or Mylene in a bikini.

    I went to PR/Media event in London on Monday and heard the President of Starbucks talk about their CSR and how they work closely with local communities throughout the world. So many businesses today want to be seen as nice guys, the “control command” style of leadership is not to be encouraged, the happiness and satisfaction of staff and customers must come first, that was the key message.

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