The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility

By Steve May; George Cheney et al. | Go to book overview
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Government, Business, and the Self
in the United States


Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when
it has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked?

Edward, First Baron Thurlow

As this chapter is being written, the world is coming to grips with a natural disaster of monumental proportions—an undersea earthquake and the tsunamis it spawned. The death toll is 283,000. The initial aid commitment from the U.S. government was $35 million; it was characterized as “stingy” by an official of the United Nations. Then came the announcement by President George W. Bush of an increased U.S. commitment of $350 million and his angry response to the earlier criticism (Sanger & Hoge, 2005). This presidential action (and reaction) is a clear reminder that social responsibility has a fluid definition; it applies to institutions of all sizes and shapes, not merely corporations. This instance also underscores the futility of trying to manage one's reputation only within a given locale (e.g., the United States); regardless of plans and strategies, the wider world can impinge in an instant.

On a less global note, but closer to the thrust of this chapter, are two news items recounting unprecedented actions by corporate directors. The first item is an agreement by 10 former directors of WorldCom to “fork over $18 million of their own money to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by [those parties] who lost hundreds of millions of dollars when the company collapsed in 2002, the largest bankruptcy in history” (“Directors on Notice,” 2005, 1). In the second story, 10 former directors of Enron have agreed “to pay $13 million out of their own pockets as part of a $168 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by onetime shareholders who lost billions of dollars in the company's collapse in 2001” (Eichenwald, 2005, 1). The fact that both of these items ran in the New York Times on the same day may be serendipity, but it is also a clear sign of the depth of public resentment regarding corporate misbehavior and director malfeasance.

This chapter is authored by a communication scholar who studies the rhetoric of institutions. In an earlier lifetime, I practiced public relations for a number of state and local governments. In this role, I worked with the news media, wrote speeches for politicians, and promoted the public image of these agencies. With the background of these experiences, I examine the strategies and ethics of corporate social responsibility (CSR) claims.

One's perspective on corporate regulation—its desirability, efficacy, and extent—benchmarks one's political philosophy. In the United States, the history of the ebb and flow of our sentiments about large corporate entities and their regulation is well known. Wells (2002) observes: “Since the late nineteenth century, Americans have debated what duties large business organizations might have to their workers, customers, neighbors, and the public at large” (p. 77). After the Civil War, urban centers grew and railroads and manufacturing burgeoned. This development was followed by the laissez faire approach to economics and the rise


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