Have a social conscience or get one fast

People are more likely to advocate for companies and brands that have a social conscience. When it was known that Nike was paying low wages to workers, its advocates abandoned the brand. Doing the right thing comes at a price. It’s easy to be good when it costs nothing. If you find yourself in the wrong, experts suggest that it is better to admit your mistake, course correct and move on. Rather than set up detractors, avoid the issue and let it linger.

How does one develop a social conscience? The simplest thing to do, is ask yourself; do my actions, in any way, jeopardize the interest of my stakeholders or any section of the society? However it gets tricky when the actions are viewed with a lens of personal interest as it clouds our judgment.

Ray Jordan, Chief Communications Officer for Johnson & Johnson said that we cannot always control every single thing that happens in a company but that doesn’t absolve us of the reputational issues that result from them. For him the simple answer to all difficult questions was, what is the right thing to do? Even at the cost of great organizational loss, J&J did the right thing by recalling its products time and again in line with its motto to keep customer interest first.

We also need to consider the signs of our times. Something that is typical of the way things are now. We have become a highly sceptical world today. The one who provide and seek information are sceptical, the information is consumed and shared cynically, resulting in cyclical cynicism and erosion of trust.

Earlier we tuned in-absorbed information-tuned out but today we tune out-dig in-spread out. There is no one source of dominant information. Some prefer to live in known circles of known opinion and even become known vote banks. You get the information you want and rarely have to hear a dissenting voice.

We also choose to associate with our version of truth. There are multiple realities and we choose to knowingly create a world of like-minded people shutting out the rest. As an example, you will find equal support for and against killing of stray dogs. Equal amounts of admiration and hatred for a particular politician or a political party. In the internet age, there is no single iconic measure of mainstream opinion. That distinction used to belong to the cover of news magazines but today by the time a story reaches the cover it is dead.

Humans weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination. This web allows us to organize ourselves to support or oppose a view. Evaluating the possible opposition before we finalize a communication is a simple way to assess the risk. Therefore all communication must pass the filter of a chief reputation officer. In some situations, knowing your risks well in advance helps you prepare. 

Take for instance the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. When the Chinese government decided to build the dam in 1922, physicist calculated the pressures, economists forecasted the budgets, and engineers predicted the benefits. What was not taken into consideration is that the dam would flood many villages and more than one million people would be impacted. There was a possibility that the dam would also endanger the Chinese river dolphin. It is difficult to determine that generating thousands of megawatts and making billions of yuan is more valuable than the impact on society.   

Consider another example, few devout religions oppose abortion although the main bone of contention is factual than ethical. But the disagreement is about the biological facts. Some cultures maintain that life doesn’t begin even at birth. According to various Intuit groups in the Arctic, human life begins only after the name is given to a child. People from such cultures might agree with liberals and religious groups that life is sacred and murder is a terrible crime and yet condone infanticide. Therefore considering diverse perspectives before we make decision becomes important. Amongst our considerations should be ethical, actual and practical arguments.

But then there is the downright silly. Public relation fiascos have also been a result of insensitive communications that invites trouble. These are cases of absolute neglect. An Indian mattress company in its ad, sketched Malala Yousafzai being shot and then bouncing back to receive an award. The ad was termed as insensitive and such was the global wrath against it that the agency had to issue an apology from its global offices. These can be easily avoided.

S Roy Kandpal works with Adfactors Public Relations.