oxymoron  (ˌɒksɪˈmɔːrɒn)
 
n  , pl -mora
  rhetoric  an epigrammatic effect, by which contradictory terms are used in conjunction: living death ; fiend angelical
 
[C17: via New Latin from Greek oxumōron,  from oxus  sharp + mōros  stupid]

 A colleague recently approached me asking for my humble opinion about a newly created senior manager of Corporate Affairs position for a publicly traded company in the data storage space. In short order while reading the position description, my cerebral alarm bells were going off.

The main responsibility of the anointed senior manager of Corporate Affairs would be to “execute the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) responsibilities.” Hmmm …

I was left wondering how long it would take the company to “execute” the senior manager of Corporate Affairs responsible for CSR in the face of the next inevitable technology industry downturn. This position has all the sounds of classic SG&A (selling, general and administrative) or a corporate expense, which Finance departments will curtail if not outright eliminate.

Just as widely extolled video news releases (VNRs) of the 1990s made shameless PR firms gobs of cash while being round-filed or cut-up for “B-roll” by television station producers, the virtues of CSR are now part of every pitch made in agency reviews or RFP response cattle calls.

But is CSR in its purest form really an oxymoron? Do the words, “corporate” and “social responsibility” really belong in the same sentence? Please don’t giggle.

aneelkarnani

As Aneel Karnani of the University of Michigan Business School wrote in the Wall Street Journal www.wsj.com there are cases in which companies have done good things for society and the environment, including serving healthier foods at fast-food restaurants and offering more fuel-efficient cars. Yes, companies can be green while chasing green. http://www.bus.umich.edu/FacultyBios/FacultyBio.asp?id=000119664

But let’s keep in mind that the pursuit of profits and delivering shareholder value are the core missions of the executives in corporate boardrooms, not saving the world. In all due respect, Mother Teresa never had to lead quarterly earnings report conference calls or answer questions at annual meetings of shareholders. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Teresa

“Very simply, in cases where private profits and public interests are aligned, the idea of corporate social responsibility is irrelevant: Companies that simply do everything they can to boost profits will end up increasing social welfare,” Karnani wrote. “In circumstances in which profits and social welfare are in direct opposition, an appeal to corporate social responsibility will almost always be ineffective, because executives are unlikely to act voluntarily in the public interest and against shareholder interests.”

And speaking about shareholder interests, there is this little notion called, fiduciary responsibility, that trumps corporate social responsibility each and every time. And that may not be such a bad thing.

“The movement for corporate social responsibility is in direct opposition, in such cases, to the movement for better corporate governance, which demands that managers fulfill their fiduciary duty to act in the shareholders’ interest or be relieved of their responsibilities,” said Karnani. “That’s one reason so many companies talk a great deal about social responsibility but do nothing—a tactic known as ‘greenwashing.’”

Certainly companies that act irresponsibly and end up hurting society and the environment (e.g. British Petroleum or BP “Deepwater Horizon oil spill) will be punished by vote-seeking politicians, marauding plaintiff’s attorneys, consumers, shareholders…just to name a few. It is good business to maintain a positive reputation and a strong brand…and that means also protecting that brand. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deepwater_Horizon_oil_spill

oilspillbird

Having said that, expecting companies to worship exclusively at the altar of Corporate Social Responsibility in the face of a potential double dip recession where mere survival maybe job #1 just simply doesn’t jive with reality. As the late Ann Richards once said: “That dog don’t hunt.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Richards

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