Put Responsibility on the Agenda

22 November 2010 Robert Phillips

In the wake of the global economic crisis, the corporate sustainability agenda has attracted fewer headlines, but that doesn't mean the issues have gone away. Michael Jones met with Robert Phillips, UK CEO of PR giant Edelman, to discuss shifting attitudes to corporate social responsibility and why, 25 years into his career, he still wants to change the world.

The UK headquarters of the world's largest independent public relations agency in London's Victoria are bright, charming and buzzing with energy; qualities embodied in its CEO, Robert Phillips. He is affable and friendly and has a nice line in darkly humorous and pithy putdowns. He's also fiercely passionate about how business should address sustainability and being a responsible citizen of the world.

Phillips, an award-winning brand marketer with two campaigns in PRWeek's Top 20 Campaigns of All Time, is the co-author of the 2008 book Citizen Renaissance, which addresses the major shifts of our time, one of which is the perfect storm surrounding climate change. When I ask if the global economic crisis has affected the business case for putting climate change front and centre, he gives an honest appraisal. "It certainly knocked it off its perch for a while," he says. "I think there are a few people who were quite happy to say they knew it was just a policy for the good times."

"I'm not an environmental activist; I try to be a responsible consumer and a responsible citizen in general. I'm not someone who has felt the need to live in a yurt and wear sandals all the time."

The impressive blue-chip client list that Edelman (where the receptionists are 'concierges') boasts means that Phillips has the ear of the great and the good and is afforded the opportunity to discuss the prevailing corporate view on climate change.

"A lot of CEOs have been thinking long and hard about their business models, and one of the points made in Citizen Renaissance is that the rise of digital democracy has created more action-oriented citizens and NGOs," he says. "I think what the global financial crisis did was to focus people's minds on what their business models should look like. In doing so, they need to be thinking about all aspects of it, including environmental issues. So, in that sense, it never went away. It actually became more acute."

Phillips is adamant that corporate attitudes must continue to evolve. "It is unsustainable, on so many levels, to continue to behave in the way that we have," he says. "I think that the most fundamental lesson of the downturn is that there is a reset and the environment and responsibility have to be part of that reset. There is no going back on that. The responsibility agenda, if anything, has to be more pronounced. While 'pure green' may be less pronounced, responsibility and business modelling is pretty much there."

With interest in the environment appearing to have dropped down the political agenda, is it fair to say that the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement only achieves real traction during the boom years? "I think people are too quick to try and find a catch-all definition of what is going on," says Phillips.

"Some companies never let it go and some never gave it enough attention in the first place. I think that different companies are in different stages of their own thinking about this."

Do the right thing

Phillips' biography reveals a particular passion in the confluence of corporate reputation and citizen brands as well as the role of trust, responsibility and accountability within business and politics. So where does climate change fit for him? "I'm not an environmental activist; I try to be a responsible consumer and a responsible citizen in general. I'm not someone who has felt the need to live in a yurt and wear sandals all the time," he says. "But it's important to understand that we need to be responsible human beings and that business has a responsibility to lead. As citizens, we've always had the right to hold business and governments to account, but now we've got the power."

It's a point that he is eager to press. "What we do is important, and we have the ability to take action," he adds. "That doesn't mean we should live on Parliament Square for three months, it means that we should make our voices heard and that change should be a collective process." Phillips also feels that the relationship is clearly a tripartite contract between governments, business and citizens. "One of the fundamental rules of the post-downturn world is there has to be some new and unusual alliances," he says.

However, is it fair to expect big business to continue long-term investment during an economic downturn? "Absolutely," says Phillips. "I don't think it's about investment in CSR, it's about the fact that businesses need to be responsible, period. Whether that's making sure that health and safety checks are followed up on an oil rig, that the right supply chain ethics are in place or ensuring that you are not being overly consumptive."  

Phillips is also of the opinion that these standards must never slip. "The business of business is still business, but that doesn't mean it should be irresponsible; there are always ways to do it in an ethical way," he says. "Look at the way Marks & Spencer has done it with Plan A; it's a pragmatic approach."

"I never seen responsibility as an opportunity, I've seen it as an imperative. I never think of doing the right thing as an economic driver or a market opportunity."

One of the major concerns with environmental campaigners in recent years is that of 'greenwash', the lipservice paid by companies towards making a difference, but never following it up with action. "It's definitely still out there," says Phillips, "but I think that sensible, thoughtful and well-advised companies know that those who use greenwash will be outed eventually. There is a new immediacy and fragility about everything and trust in organisations is not as vested as it used to be. The best organisations are those that have a clear leadership but also embrace the democracy of the crowd."

With company's opening themselves up to direct feedback from consumers via social media, there is a chance of them being accused of employing a gimmick. Phillips, a keen blogger and social networker, gives a wry smile. "It's gimmicky when it's not followed through or properly marshalled," he says.

"One of the changes we have seen, and this differs from country to country and sector to sector, is that when consumers respond to questions, they damn well expect us to follow through. One of the implications of this world of shared interests is that people expect delivery."

When pressed on who he feels are the world-leading CEOs and companies in CSR, Phillips considers carefully. "I had the good fortune to meet Alan Mulally at Ford about a year ago and I was blown away by how much deep thinking he had done about this stuff," he says. "You see a car manufacturer and think big, bad and petrol guzzling. And of course Ford has big, bad and petrol-guzzling trucks in its portfolio.

"But some of the stuff that he has been doing within his innovation group on its kinetic range of cars, and the fact that he is prepared to re-imagine the future of transport in order to open up Ford's potential, is a brave piece of thinking."

Phillips is also keen to dismiss the notion that the leaders of large corporates consider sustainability to be a secondary issue. "Sometimes we are either too quick to criticise or to label things tokenistic," he says. "From speaking with other CEOs of large corporations, it's clear that this stuff keeps them awake at night." Suggesting another example, he cites Starbucks. "I think that the way it has raised issues about fair trade in Africa, Rwanda in particular, and HIV awareness in the US is really important.

"I'm a cynic, but I read an interview with Howard Schultz recently about Rwanda that genuinely brought tears to my eyes because he is a guy making a difference. I think that's really powerful."

Phillips feels that a sustainable conscience has become increasingly ingrained in the DNA of many large organisations. "I think a lot of companies are doing it for the right reasons," he says. "They are also doing it because they know there are commercial imperatives too. If it's a question of whether they are missionaries or mercenaries, it's often a bit of both. But if anyone stands to benefit, I can't see anything wrong with that."

The motivation for responsibility

So how can good corporate behaviour make a difference to developing nations as well as the Western world? "The Diageo Foundation's work on water hygiene in Africa and the work that Andrew Witty [CEO at GSK] is doing on open sourcing patents on Malaria drugs with a commitment to Africa are good examples of where corporations are thought they needed to do things differently and we're prepared to rethink its models in order to this," says Phillips.

And it's not necessarily just through community work that companies can make a difference in emerging markets. They can also affect change through their products. "Look at how the news revolution in Africa is being fuelled by mobile telephony," says Phillips. "Africa will have a new generation of news media borne out of mobility because companies such as Samsung, Nokia and Vodafone are making that happen. There is a huge responsibility to driving development that doesn't need to be green or have to be shouting Plan A at people the whole time; it has to be the products that are helping to build a better society."

So, does Phillips see an opportunity in behaving more ethically? "This is where I struggle slightly," he says. "I've never seen responsibility as an opportunity, I've seen it as an imperative," he implores. "I never think of doing the right thing as an economic driver or a market opportunity."

As our meeting draws to a close - prompted by a conference call with Edelman's Chicago HQ - Phillips embellishes his last statement. "A slightly more cynical answer would be that in a world where our awareness of responsibility is heightened, and consumers are more demanding of corporations, there have been economic opportunities in being more sustainable. But that will never be my motivation for doing it."