Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Risk of Advocacy Self-Defeat: Perspectives of CSR Managers

One reason companies like Apple and Intel pulled out of the Congo so precipitously is that the advocates wouldn't accept anything less. The following excerpt from Resource Consulting Services' publication, Beyond Conflict: Reconfiguring approaches to the regional trade in minerals from Eastern DRC, describes how advocacy impatience convinced industry groups that there could be no alternative to withdrawing from the Congo entirely.

“Imagine you are the CSR manager of a company that sells billions of dollars worth of electronic goods and you know you have customers with a conscience. One day NGO representatives come into your office and tell you that your product may contain conflict minerals. The next morning you realize that the same NGO has started to talk to your customer through the press. The next afternoon your sales manager tells you about a call from a sales representative, who was asked whether it was true that the product was fuelling conflict.“

You don’t know what to answer. You don’t know Eastern DRC, the region the NGO is talking about, because your company doesn’t source minerals directly. Unfortunately that also means you cannot rule out any negative externalities of the trade. In the meantime your PR department is going ballistic, because your brand name and the word conflict are too often printed and mentioned in the same sentence. The next morning you gather your troops in a meeting room and a response is internally identified: we will urge our suppliers not to source from Eastern DRC; we will try to put as much distance between our valuable brand and this conflict issue on the ground.

The next day a representative from the government development agency is in your office. He explains the issue from a development perspective and suggests that the minerals are not only associated with conflict, but also with livelihoods and basic survival. The suggestion is that instead of withdrawing from the trade, you should help to reform it. This is unknown territory for you, but given that your company subscribes to a triple bottom line approach, you agree to a dialogue. You speak to the CEOs of your competitors and you collectively agree to start your own industry wide research into the subject. You are aware that a evelopment process takes some time, but you are willing to take the risk, so long as it is acknowledged that you are actively trying to contribute to a solution.

Then the train hits the wall.

NGO campaigns start that hold your brand responsible for conflict and rape. Another pressure group report openly suggests very stringent measure that could apply to companies and individuals found to be purchasing from the region, such as prosecution by the International Criminal Court or being reprimanded by your home governments. At the same time your sales representative keeps calling your sales manager about a response to the question about your brand, conflict and rape.

The government development agency representative calls you the next day to ask you about the extent that you can commit to a reform process. You remind him that you are the CSR manager of one of the best known brands in the world, but that this is an industry wide problem. You say to him that you have not decided yet, whether you want to commit the brand. Instead you refer him to the industry representative body.

The next morning you gather your troops in the meeting room: You decide to urge your suppliers to completely withdraw from Eastern DRC; you will put as much distance between your valuable brand and this conflict issue on the ground. The risk of getting burned by the pressure groups is too high to commit your brand to support a reform process.

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