Challenging Times: Communicators Stand Up for Business Ethics at IABC International Conference

By Sowers, Virginia | Communication World, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Challenging Times: Communicators Stand Up for Business Ethics at IABC International Conference


Sowers, Virginia, Communication World


IABC members attending international conference in June were challenged to do more than simply tell the corporate story. Communicators acknowledged that it's their professional and personal responsibility to lead the way in ensuring that the story is accurate and reflects ethical business practices.

Numerous case studies provided ample evidence of how the communication professional can shape the corporate conscience at a time when employee and consumer skepticism of corporate motives and practices is growing.

"We've always used the story as a way of understanding who we are," said keynote speaker and noted author Salman Rushdie. But he warned IABC members of growing forces worldwide that choose to contain stories within set parameters and to narrow frontiers. "It's the business of communication to expand those frontiers," Rushdie asserted. Quoting a Saul Bellow novel, Rushdie urged: "'For God's sake, open the universe a little more.'"

To that end, IABC gave conference goers a private screening of "The Corporation," a new film that takes a controversial look at the nature of the corporate institution, its impact on the planet and the public's response. In making the film and writing a book by the same title, Joel Bakan, a professor of law at the University of British Columbia, told IABC members that he was "struck by how much soul searching is going on in the corporate world. Greed, self interest and obsession with the bottom line are unsustainable and unhealthy for society," he opined. "As business communicators, you can bring community voices to the corporation and decide ... which stakeholders to listen to."

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY AND ACTION

Corporate responsibility is officially "in" as more companies embrace such programs as a way to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and build customer, employee and stockholder loyalty.

At a conference session on "Corporate Responsibility and the Communicator's Role," Michael Mitchell, director of corporate communications at Chiquita, related how the company's reputation slipped several years ago amid intense international criticism alleging unethical business practices throughout its Latin American operations. An international marketer, producer and distributor of fresh fruits and vegetables, Chiquita has successfully transformed its reputation over the last decade, winning international acclaim for its policies.

The company has earned credibility, Mitchell said, by "committing to high standards and living up to them." But change didn't happen overnight for a 105-year old company with 24,000 employees and operations in more than 60 countries. It took sustained pressure from non-governmental organizations and the media to get the attention of company management that had eschewed transparency. But in 1992, Chiquita took a major step by joining the Rainforest Alliance and agreeing to nine measurable and verifiable environmental and social standards for sustainable banana production. Since 2000. 100 percent of the company-owned farms are certified sustainable, representing a "significant investment of $20 million," Mitchell reported. Chiquita is now expanding this requirement to its independent banana suppliers, with 75 percent of growers certified at the end of 2003.

Improving labor and environmental practices was an important step toward corporate responsibility, but Chiquita pressed on. In 1999 the company embarked on a "comprehensive and inclusive program to develop core values, Mitchell related. "We involved more than 1 000 employees to determine what those values were." The team identified four values that would guide their work: integrity, respect, opportunity and responsibility. Today those core values appear on Chiquita's web site, employees' business cards and numerous communication pieces as positive reinforcement. In addition, the company updated its code of conduct to include Social Accountability International's SA8000 standards, which set expectations regarding health and safety, child labor, disciplinary practices, work hours and compensation and other labor issues.

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