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July 10, 2001
Americans Increasingly Interested in Corporate Citizenship
    by Mark Thomsen

Survey indicates that Americans are looking for good corporate citizens, but are having difficulty finding them.


A majority of Americans consider corporate citizenship when they make investment and purchasing decisions, but relatively few feel that American companies stand out as good corporate citizens. Those are some of the results of a recent study of American attitudes toward corporate social practices, commissioned by the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton.

"Our survey findings suggest that corporations need to do more than simply give away dollars," said Harlan Teller, executive vice president and director of Hill and Knowlton's Worldwide Corporate practice. "They need to act in ways that are meaningful to their stakeholders - consumers, investors, employees, and members of the local community - and that genuinely demonstrate their core corporate values."

Entitled "2001 Corporate Citizen Watch," the survey was conducted in April 2001 through Harris Interactive. The survey involved interviewing 2,594 Americans aged 18 or older via the Internet. According to Suzanne Laurita, Hill and Knowlton USA's Director of Marketing, respondents to the nine-question survey were an accurate statistical representation of the U.S. population.

The study revealed that 71 percent of the respondents consider corporate citizenship in their investment decisions. More relevant to social investors, 12 percent said they would buy the stock of socially responsible companies even if it meant accepting lower financial returns. The survey also found that almost four out of five Americans take corporate citizenship into account when deciding whether to buy a particular company's product, with over 36 percent considering it an important factor.

While the survey indicates a majority of people consider corporate citizenship in their investment and consumption decisions, a majority also perceive U.S. corporate citizenship performance as average or below average. About 53 percent of those surveyed said U.S. companies are below average in terms of corporate citizenship performance. Only 27 percent said U.S. companies were above average, and less than 2 percent regarded U.S. companies as excellent corporate citizens.

Regarding charity, respondents seemed to be very cynical about corporate motives. Three out of four people said companies participated in charitable or philanthropic activities to get good publicity. Fewer than 25 percent of those surveyed believe companies donate time and money because they are truly committed to charitable causes.

Cynicism can also be found about the commissioner of the study itself. Some observers find it ironic that Hill and Knowlton is the source of a survey on corporate citizenship. John Stauber, founder and Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a non-profit PR watchdog, said "Hill and Knowlton has a long history of representing all sorts of nefarious polluting industries and repressive third-world regimes."

Perhaps the most infamous example of this was Hill and Knowlton's pro-Kuwait PR campaigns launched after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Among its many activities, Hill and Knowlton coached the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to lie to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus about witnessing Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital. The lie was not revealed until after the Gulf War ended.

In the six months following the invasion, Hill and Knowlton received approximately $10.8 million in fees from the Kuwaiti royal family. (More information about Hill and Knowlton's Kuwait-related activities can be found in Stauber's book "Toxic Sludge is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry," or "The Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War" by John MacArthur)

Regardless of Hill and Knowlton's muddy past, the 2001 Corporate Citizen Watch survey seems to be based on valid methodology and indicates increasing public interest in good corporate citizenship. Perhaps a time may come when the PR giant finds it more lucrative to promote good and clean corporate practices rather than obfuscate dirty ones.

 

 
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