Monday, December 8, 2008

Advancing Corporate Citizenship in the Media: Working Group

The media certainly have a great deal of influence over public opinion and discourse. During my recent trip to Brussels, I even heard one finance expert blame the media for the worsening of the financial crisis, saying that the media sector is stoking fear beyond reason.

Can a sense of social responsibility or ethics be instilled in the American media sector? At the Carnegie Council, we convened a small working group of media professionals called "Advancing Corporate Citizenship in the Media." Based on our first meeting, the following are some of the big issues that the group might explore:

balancing media coverage vs delivering a socially responsible message;

whether good behavior can be recognized without the use of certification;

distinguishing opinion from fact;

balancing the need to be entertaining and profitable with the company's role of informing societal debate.

Media CSR Forum has identified issues in three categories: those that are common to all sectors (such as the environment); those that have implications for the media (such as intellectual property); and those that are specific to the media (such as media literacy).

In this final category, the Forum has identified media literacy as a common concern and workable issue for its stakeholders. Its campaign asks, for example: Are you a receptacle for the unacceptable?

Trust in the media has been increasing in several countries, according to the Forum's research. It was surmised that public engagement, such as conferences, and transparency in the media sector could be given partial credit for this improvement.

How to create incentives for better behavior? I asked the group whether non-bottom line and non-shareholder issues could influence behavior. What about moral suasion? Can the interaction of peers and competitors at working groups facilitate better behavior? What about certification, reputation risk, association in a working group? Can these things build trust among competitors? One practitioner suggested that we attempt to shape popular culture to create moral suasion, tying brand, culture, and CSR.

There appeared to be traction in this area since "self-regulation is preferable to government regulation." One way could be to share information on each company's internal code of conduct toward improving the sector's conduct and embedding good behavior in corporate culture. One code of conduct for the sector as a whole is a possibility especially if stakeholders demand it.

Nevertheless, it will be challenging to create a universal code since there are so many types of media (music, new media, print, etc.). I asked if we could use the Equator Principles as a model. It was noted that those Principles worked because they were targeted specifically to project finance, suggesting that the more focused, the better. One practitioner wondered how we would know when a CSR ethic was embedded in the company? Is it already there? How do you embed it?On media literacy, one practitioner wondered whether the focus might be better placed on examining infotainment. In other words, which comes first: creating a better product or teaching people how to use it? The cart or the horse?

A code of media ethics should be connected to how media companies relate to their readers and stakeholders. Indeed, a business case for ethical practices will be made if readers demand it. Shareholders will get the message. One of the companies in NYC is trying to engage its readers directly with its editorials and by making its style guides available. Advances have been made in distinguishing fact from opinion in print by using different font treatment. One practitioner agreed that demands from clients can also change ethical practices dramatically. What if large newspapers demanded green policies from clients wishing to run green ads?

It was noted that CSR is coming back because there is now a struggle to define CSR, and this struggle is creating opportunity. One observer said that while CSR is on the minds of media executives in the big cities, it has not yet reached the heartland, yet this market could have a big effect if tapped, suggesting another opportunity.

Overall, CSR can be seen as a business opportunity and a way to reduce risk. This is the lens through which a task force can make a case.Another approach toward introducing CSR in the media is for the media to critically assess corporate behavior and then report on it. Corporations can engage the media for more critical self-assessment.

Several participants noted that American top tier media companies have a responsibility to make the case for climate change mitigation. Future meetings might take emulate the Media CSR Forum's model and bring in experts from media and civil society to speak.

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