What’s Happening to CSR?
By Michael Breen
When it started in earnest 30 or 40 years ago, corporate social responsibility seemed like a good idea.
But judging from the experience of the businessman in Busan who tried to help society by sponsoring prosecutors, sometimes it just doesn't seem worth it.
Consider his case. According to MBC-TV's investigative program ``PD Notebook," a construction company CEO identified only by his surname Chung ― there's donor modesty for a start because there are many Chungs in Korea ― regularly gave money to around 50 prosecutors for over 20 years.
On top of that, knowing the high stress of their daily job getting confessions out of people who claim they're innocent, he paid for them to relax at night in room salons. He even paid for prostitutes. All this out of his own pocket. His motive? Well, he hasn't said because he obviously doesn't want to boast. But I'm guessing that his interest was human rights.
I bet that if we could get footage from those room salons, we'd see him reminding prosecutors that people should be respected, that evidence is more important than confession and that suspects are innocent until proven guilty.
That, of course, highlights a modern trend in corporate social responsibility, or CSR as it's called. Some companies provide funding for causes close to the heart of their owners or chief executives. I know one banker here, for example, who sponsored a fighting bull. There was no connection to the bank itself ― he wasn't trying to make any shallow ``bull market" connections ― but it was the CEO's thing and didn't cost much. You'd be surprised how little you have to pay to get associated with a bull on the fighting circuit.
Talking of trends, while companies once sponsored all kinds of things for good PR, the direction now is to link CSR with the company's interests. For example, foreign companies here, mindful of Korean nationalism, go the extra mile to show they like Korea by funding traditional music concerts, sponsoring students or organizing kimchi eating contests.
Other companies, particularly those which come under regular media criticism simply because of their product or industry ― such as defense firms and investment banks ― promote CSR to make their employees feel better about themselves. To emphasize this motive, one blue chip U.S. bank here has a policy of not publicizing the good work done by its employees.
But back to our man in Busan. How has he been rewarded for his good work? After telling his story, he gets arrested. Now everyone is criticizing him. Even the president weighed in.
``I don't think it is a mere corruption case," President Lee was reported in this paper as having told aides. ``The first thing to do is to investigate the case thoroughly. Then we have to map out comprehensive measures to prevent such irregularities from happening again."
Phew. I am sure there are a lot of business leaders right now, even in the top chaebol, saying to themselves, ``Well, that's the last time I help out a prosecutor." And that can only mean more stressed-out prosecutors and more abuse of suspects
This case is not isolated. As society takes CSR for granted, there is a growing dislike of people and firms that come across as goody two-shoes. But such public sentiment sweeps up the good and the well-meaning.
For example, a survey of 351 actresses and aspiring actresses revealed this week that 55 percent had received at least one offer of ``sponsorship" from a rich man. Fifty-five percent of 351 is 193.05. It was not clear from the article whether this was one rich man or 193, but given that there are thousands of actresses, it adds up to a lot of wealthy people who are willing to support the arts. But the implication was that they were doing something wrong.
Not only that, these men ― who again are not looking for public recognition but who are apparently company executives and TV directors and so on ― even offered to provide sexual services to the beautiful actresses. In person! They're not suggesting prostitutes. They're offering to prostitute themselves! Why? Because they love culture and want to give something back, of course.
But what happens? Society says, ``No thanks, mate."
The irony is that the scathing report was by the National Human Rights Commission and the Korean Women's Development Institute. You'd think they at least would care. With such bodies against CSR, I fear for the future.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.