Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Hit or Miss: Shortly after the movie “The Insider” came out (the story of Brown & Williamson whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand) came out, I sat down for dinner with a few friends. We chatted about the movie, and the implication that someone employed by the company had threatened Wigand’s life. None of them found the idea that a major American corporation would hire a hit-man remotely implausible. Most assumed that such decisions were, in fact, fairly commonplace.

These were not stupid people. One was an (occasionally) working actor, another a respected and published academic, one owned his own small business. But they had all been conditioned by popular culture to believe that giant corporations would not hesitate to eliminate an individual who stood in the way of their profitability. (If you want to understand where such paranoia comes from, rent The Constant Gardener, which is only the latest and most acclaimed example of the genre in which multinationals are the villains.)

I was reminded of this by a New York Times article about the best-selling memoir Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, in which former management consultant John Perkins claims that American companies routinely hire “hit men” (he says he was one) to bribe the leaders of emerging economies, and “jackals,” whose more sinister role is to take care of those who won’t be bribed. (The movie rights have already been bought, and it is apparently being viewed as a vehicle for Harrison Ford.)

“During an earlier time, that message might have been mere fodder for conspiracy theorists and fringe publishers,” says the Times. “But now, for all of Mr. Perkins’s talk of fiery plane crashes and corporate intrigue, his book seems to have tapped into a larger vein of discontent and mistrust that Americans feel toward the ties that bind together corporations, large lending institutions and the government.”

It’s no secret, of course, that corporations enjoy a tarnished reputation. And since some of those whose reputations are most tarnished (Exxon, anyone?) continue to make massive profits, it’s reasonable to ask why they should care.

But this level of distrust does create significant friction. It makes it harder to recruit bright and idealistic young talent; harder to get planning permission for new factories and facilities; harder to fight off proposed regulation; harder to defend your company in court.

I believe it is at least partly a product of the Milton Friedman-Wall Street Journal view of business, the one that says the only social responsibility of business is to make a profit, that insists the free market, operating amorally, produces outcomes that are moral and just. Managers who insist that their role begins and ends with making a profit and creating wealth for their shareholders are simply playing into this kind of cynicism.

For most people, it’s a pretty short step from the current corporate dogma that companies have no broader social responsibility to the idea that corporations will do whatever it takes—inside or outside the law—to make money for their shareholders. Friedman and his fellow free market fundamentalists can argue until they are blue in the face that “greed is good,” but the profit motive makes people suspicious, and unless companies can begin to show that they are motivated by something other than filthy lucre, they are always going to be regarded with suspicion, cynicism and hostility.

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