Faint traces of buttock

In September 2009 The Times Bugle podcast described an apology by the former CEOs of bailed-out banks in front of a UK parliamentary committee as “not so much half-arsed, as containing barely detectable traces of buttock.

As the CEOs of the large US banks appear in front of their senior politicians to admit to as little as possible – while approving billions in bonuses from trading in a market created and supported almost entirely by central banks – it’s worth having a bit of a buttock rummage in the press to see what’s motivating our CEOs to do good.

What are we writing about corporate social responsibility these days? After all, when money’s tight, it’s a pretty obvious thing to cut back if money is more important than ethics.

On first look, there’s good news in the press coverage of CSR. The consistent rise in the number of stories about it since 2002 has continued. There are about four times as many articles about CSR now as there were in 2002, which suggests that interest hasn’t gone away:

What are these stories about? Business ethics in general have been in the news quite a bit in 2009, yet the number of stories that mentioned CSR alongside ethics or ethical behaviour, and didn’t talk about profit, dropped off suddenly:

Still, doesn’t look too bad; the long-term trend is slightly upward. And this is a rough measure: it would not capture a story about how ethics are more important than profit, for example.

Now if we look at the similar graph for CSR stories that mention profitability but not ethical behaviour, we see the opposite effect in 2009: a sudden jump.

Note the scales were different; so to see what’s really going on, let’s overlay the two trends:

Gosh! Our search is not perfect, but in 2002 there were the almost the same number of ethics-not-profit stories as profit-not-ethics stories. Since then the number of ethics-based CSR stories hasn’t really shifted, and is now declining. But look at the coverage for CSR-as-profit! That’s really taking off.

A couple of possible explanations: maybe the only way to protect a CSR programme right now is to convince shareholders and CEOs that it is all about making pots of money. Or maybe we’re all just writing stories about balance sheets now, and find business ethics a bit irrelevant.

In the banking industry in the last 12 months – a sector that has been accused both of being ethically-challenged and far too motivated by profit – there have been 82 stories on CSR that mention ethical behaviour, but not profit. There have been 548 (six times as many) CSR stories that mention profit, but not ethical behaviour.

You might think that business, and especially the financial sector, has often been half-arsed about its social responsibility. If so, these graphs seem to suggest (in Bugle terms) that the press coverage of those responsibilities shows increasingly faint traces of buttock.

1 Response to “Faint traces of buttock”

  1. 1 Claire Thompson January 18, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Part of this may be that some PR companies that didn’t understand CSR had some bad habits.

    They confused CSR with corporate philanthropy (giving to charity) which is something completely different. (Nice, great to do, worthy of feelgood publicity, but not going to get you out of a hole when the truth comes out.)

    True CSR is linked to good corporate governance – prevention is better than a cure. Ergo if you’ve been ripping down rainforests or poisoning people in places where people are too poor to protest, and stop, running publicity around stopping won’t win you brownie points – it just highlights that you were doing it in the first place.

    Plus a lot of CSR activity now falls under ‘sustainability’.

    So with a little luck, the media coverage may, in some quarters at least, be a reflection of a better trend?

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