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January 30, 2002
Spreading the Word about Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development
    by William Baue

A new report assesses the role of the media in the growth of corporate social responsibility and sustainable development.

Living in the "Information Age," the public is increasingly beholden to the media. Media companies act as the gatekeepers of the flow of information, deciding what, when, and how "news" is reported. When it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable development (SD), the power of the media could make or break the public's acceptance of these issues in the 21st century.

Today, SustainAbility, a UK-based consulting firm, and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released the fourth industry sector report in their Engaging Stakeholders series. Entitled Good News and Bad: The Media, Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development, the report was produced jointly with Ketchum, a top-ten global public relations firm. The upcoming World Summit for Sustainable Development, to be held in South Africa in September 2002, acted as a catalyst for the report.

The media generally devote much coverage to high-profile stories. The report ascribes the media's preoccupation with the sensational to human nature and commercial self-interest. CSR and SD issues, however, often develop slowly through complex story lines, according to the report.

"[T]he media are abysmal at covering critical--but slow burn--issues," stated the report's authors, John Elkington and Francesca Müller of SustainAbility. The authors quoted one of their interviewees, Greenpeace campaigner Chris Rose, to characterize the media's preoccupation with sensational stories: "[It] is equivalent to covering economies by only reporting bank robberies."

Media coverage of CSR and SD stories tends to cycle through waves, with subsequent downwaves, according to the report. The first two cycles of waves and downwaves occurred between the early-1960s and the mid-1990s. The "Battle of Seattle" at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in 1999 commenced the third wave of media interest in CSR and SD issues. This third wave is focused on the movement against corporate globalization. Ketchum, which announced its formation of a CSR public relations division today, performed the media scanning work that identified these coverage waves.

Of course, the media themselves are not immune from globalization. The responsibility for objective reporting resides in increasingly fewer hands; as few as six corporations now own the majority of media outlets around the world, according to the report. As media companies grow and gain power, their own interests become entangled in the organizations on which they report. This conflict of interests impacts the public's confidence in the impartiality of news coverage.

"The media represents one of the most powerful--yet least trusted and least accountable--institutions in the world," the report stated. "If media companies are to remain credible in the 21st century, they must increasingly look at their own corporate social responsibilities," added UNEP Assistant Executive Director Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel in the Foreword.

Few media companies produce CSR and SD reports, obscuring their transparency. The maturation of CSR and SD will compel media corporations to make their own actions more visible. At the same time, the media will play a key role in how CSR and SD enter the collective consciousness.

The report ends with a list of "do's and don'ts" for those wishing to promote CSR and SD in the media. Some suggestions are terse ("Do KISS--Keep It Simple, Seriously"), while others are more expansive.

"Do change your footwear. Put yourself in the media's shoes. Ensure you understand: (a) who covers your issues; (b) what stories and angles they are looking for; (c) what sort of deadlines they work to; and (d) whether they want soundbites or more in-depth analysis," the report suggested.

Next year, SustainAbility, UNEP, and Ketchum plan to release a follow-up report that will assess how the media are incorporating CSR and SD agendas.


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