Oral Histories

Bruce Harrison

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

Bruce Harrison Biography

Bruce Harrison, author of Corporate Greening 2.0: Create and Communicate Your Company's Climate Change and Sustainability Strategies (2008) and Going Green: How to Communicate Your Company's Environmental Commitment (1993), has been called the pioneer of corporate greening.

Bruce has provided counsel on greening/sustainability matters to more than 50 Fortune 500 companies over the course of his career as vice president of Freeport-McMoran, CEO of his Washington-based consultancy, and founder/franchiser of EnviroComm International in the U.S. and Europe. He was the first executive director of the Arthur W. Page Society, comprising senior corporate communications executives, and has since 1998 worked as a team member creating Green Diesel Technology® products at Navistar International. Bruce assists companies in connecting with effective EnviroComm professional counselors.

Bruce is a frequent speaker on greening and sustainability. His lecture, "Factors Favoring Chief Communication Officers Involvement in Climate Change and Sustainability Issues", was recognized as the best paper presented by a practitioner at the 2008 Corporate Communication International conference at Wroxton College, England.

He was recognized by PRWeek in 2001 as one of the "Top 100 Most Influential PR People of the 20th Century" for his work with companies in environmental and social responsibility.


Ahern: What do you think the best approach to motivating people to, on their own accord, look at and adopt the tenets that are being put into place for organizations in their code of ethics?

Harrison: Because of the things you are doing, Larry and Bill Nielson and others are doing at the Arthur Page Center as well as the Society are encouraging this. Putting up standards, goals, and acceptable rules of behavior or acceptable modes of behavior. Ethics are enforced at the legal/government level right here in Washington. They are always telling lobbyists and I have been one in the past, lobbyists what the ethical rules are and those are regimented, regulated, and punished. For those who step over the line, they are fined or disallowed from practicing. And in public relations and in corporate communications, the idea for me is to set the standard, show what behavior is rewarded and point up the egregious failings when those occur. And some of us have happened and companies have lied about their product, not been totally transparent about the downside of a product, or we have been slow to respond to a realized negative. So being accountable, being transparent is part of part of how we reveal what the downside is, so back to your question. How do you enforce ethics? I think you enforce it by rewarding good behavior and walking away from bad behavior. I don’t think we’ll ever pass any laws for corporate communications.

Ahern: So a method of rewards and transparency/accountability are going to be key.

Harrison: Right.

Ahern: Is there an inherent conflict between the short term goals of business and some of the goals which, as a counselor you are going to want to bring to the C suite, which is to think long term in terms of corporate imaging adhering to higher ethical levels.

Harrison: Right, well what you are asking is how do you sustain a company’s success when that company’s success relies very much on stakeholder opinion versus the short term – what do I do this quarter, What yield do I report to my investors? And that tension is always there. I mean company CEOs, the C suite, the leaders, the CFO are under constant pressure – what do I do this quarter? The stakeholders starting with investors do want to see a return now and a recovery now if they are in difficulty so that is there. But CEOs who understand the game, who go back to Jim Collins’ book on Built to Last or Moving from Good to Great understand that this is a long term perspective and the focus is on not only the return for this quarter, but the longer term, and how do we sustain the long term deal with our stakeholders. How do we anticipate change? How do we beat the competition for the longer term? Ethics come into play there but again it’s back to honesty and fair play.

Ahern: Do you believe that ethical standards, I believe we touched on this a little bit, do they need to be a top down approach. Or do they need to be a bottom up kind of grassroots movement within an organization. What is the balance about where those ethics need to be?

Harrison: Well, the question is where do ethics start. And ethics, I think, start with each individual and the kinds of people that are hired into a company either will sustain or detract from the ethical behavior that the folks at the top want. Yeah, the standard, the acceptability, the behavior that is allowed, has to start at the top. It starts with the hiring process. And it has to be exemplified by the folks in the C suite or at the plant level – the plant manger or the sales level – the sales people in charge of sales. Production – the same thing. This is what we will do. This is what this company does. This is how we have succeeded in the past. This is what I pledge to do. Here are our company’s commitments. Johnson & Johnson credo – putting those things out there and showing this is what we believe and we’ll back this up. If you don’t believe this, you know it’s not a good match for you and shouldn’t probably be doing business with us, or being an employee of ours. It starts with the top, becomes a mindset, becomes a mantra, becomes rewarded or discouraged within the organization. A commitment has to be expressed. I do believe that in things like credos, or commitments for this year, or this we believe, or this is our mission, corporate mission. We’ll put in some of that belief and language that says we care about people. We care about outcome. We will do no harm and try to leave things better than we found them.

Ahern: What role do you see or influence, does the media have on the temporary practice of ethical decision making in public relations?

Harrison: Media are very important in this. Media important because they are, I used to head up a program called Project Watchdog for the Society for Professional Journalists back a number of years. The idea there was, you keep an eye on government first of all and also on other institutions, including business, to see what these institutions government are doing that impact ordinary people who have vulnerability, sometimes no recourse to being helped out of those vulnerabilities. So the media are important. Again, it’s transparency. We’re a total open society, open age, a mass communication everybody is watching all the time. We not only need whistle blowers anymore. But we’ve got everybody watching, whether online, blogging, or they are in the news, traditional news media that I was once in, reporting. And does that raise the standard? Got to, you know when you see an Ernie Madoff. Was his first name Ernie?

Ahern: Bernie.

Harrison: Bernard Madoff, how quickly we forget. Madoff, with that sort of egregious bad behavior, you wonder, where were the watchdogs? Why didn’t we see that earlier? And it just highlights that. We depend on the media. We depend on reporters and outside observers to let us know when somebody has stepped across the moral ethical line. And it’s a good story but newspaper reporter finds that somebody stepped over the line so that’s going to be, that’s going to be news. And that’s going to be impressive and effective.

Ahern: I want to move the conversation a little bit to the topic of environmental communications, which is something you’ve been very active in for many years. And particularly get your view on the role of ethics and that particular type of public communication. It seems to me that going back over the years, environmental issues are going where talking more about the watchdog role that the practitioners of public communication have really had their feet held to the fire when it comes to that issue. Do you think that’s heightened that awareness of the ethical aspects of public communication when it comes to that issue?

Harrison: Yeah that’s an interesting question Lee, has greening as I call it and others do, influenced moral understanding, responsibility and ethics? I’d say yes, from the standpoint that greening has a social, very strong social impact. But it’s doing something else. This idea of greening, of environmental development, has made communicators more aware of the economic impact of environmental responsibility. It’s made those in the C suite more aware of the economic impact of environmental accountability. So I’ve come to understand that what we’re now calling corporate sustainability is the kind of new umbrella over all of this. I’ll get back to how this plugs back into ethical or honest, fair behavior. Corporate sustainability, an idea that was developed originally as a government policy statement back in the late 80s early 90s, now has, it seems to me, become a combination of economic/financial, social, and political accountability inside a company. By that I mean that a company looks at what is expected and now will be required with what’s happening in Capitol Hill and in the states with regard to climate change and energy efficiency and energy accountability. Those recognitions now are driving what we have to do in the social area, social realm. So environment, energy, climate change have now pushed us to the point where we need to get involved in the politics of all of this, and it is in that place that we now get back to the ethical, moral, social, accountability and performance. So it’s an influence, the idea of environmental, environmental work and environmental effort inside a company.

Ahern: In terms of energy once again, you brought up the idea of an economic balance and I wanted to bring it back to another point you made earlier about the role of government in corporate behavior. Do you see the larger social issues and decisions that need to be made in the environmental area on energy on carbon as opening the door for more government involvement, and what is the role of the PR practitioner in helping to create a balance between government and private management of this issue?

Harrison: Yeah government is certainly pushing the envelope on this. In writing my book Corporate Greening 2.0, I had some help from my environmental team looking at companies and how they are positioning themselves on climate change and sustainability. And it seemed to us that we were finding a few strategies which are, which are responsive to your question and those strategies of companies are first, for the company to set some achievable but sometimes stretched goals for their own environmental and energy efficiency operations, to set their own goals. The second strategy seems to us is to engage others, that is to collaborate with others to achieve those goals, and this means not only working with suppliers such as Wal-Mart has done and influencing green suppliers internationally, but also collaborating with others outside who are stakeholders in the company, including environmental groups, social groups, investor groups, and others. And how this company rationalizes what it has to do to meet government requirements with what it must do in meeting its own economic or financial performance goals. So, third strategy if I am up to three strategies, is to be competitive and to beat the competition in this. This just kind of changes the game with regard to what the cost of products are. What the cost of materials are. It drives up the social acceptability requirements for some products whether you are doing a vehicle that doesn’t pollute or whether you are putting products out there that are said to be green. Packaged green. Packaged smaller whatever. So the government requirements impact all of those things. And at the same time communications, communication strategy has to be to position the company with its stakeholders so that it is always reassuring the stakeholders, creating the stakeholders. Peter Drucker once said that “What’s the number one job for company management corporate management?” Peter Drucker said it’s not to employ people. It’s not even to make a product. Or it’s not even to make a profit. Number one job is to create customers. Without customers none of the rest of it can happen. It seems to me the number one job of a company and its communications people is to create stakeholders create stakeholders in the success of the company, of the organization. You do that through fair dealing, honesty, transparency, accountability and strong financial performance.

Ahern: One of the reasons I asked that, in your book you talked about a recent McKenzie and Company survey of corporate leaders, and they rank the economy, or rather the environment and not the economy, as the sustainability as you say, issues as the most important facing their companies, whereas public opinion still ranks the environment and global warming relatively low when you ask them about the most important issues. Do you think that C suite leaders and corporate leaders are ahead of the curve of this and understanding what’s going to be important in the years ahead?

Harrison: Yeah, well I you ask how C suite leaders take a position. They take a position because they understand that there’s an economic impact first on their company and there’s a social impact and there’s a political impact when something like climate change or global warming is out there. And as far as the public, they are looking out what do I have to pay for something, and is environmental concern they almost think is the same thing. Corporate people think of the economic impact. Consumers, customers, investors are thinking about economic impact. At the corporate level we realize we got to get ahead of the game here. Got to get ahead of the deal. Got to find out what our competitors are doing and suddenly greening is at the top of the agenda, or high on the agenda in the C suite, when it wasn’t before because now I got energy involved. I got the cost of what I have to have – the electricity, the power, plus what I put out there, what is my carbon footprint, something I never had to think about before, not required to think about before. And so that’s why it moved up in that McKenzie survey to very high, if not number one high on the agenda. While out here in the public, when you ask people how do you feel about buying green or not buying green, in their mind is how much is it going to cost me. You know because I’ll get it for free. I like the big box and not the little box whatever. Those decisions are out there and that’s changeable. That changes all the time.

Ahern: It’s interesting that the common perspective may be that consumers are so in tuned and care so much about environmental green issues, and corporate executives don’t, but what these surveys show is it’s kind of the opposite, even though they are both looking about, they have to understand the economic impact of what’s going on. It’s interesting that the survey shows that in reality, corporate leaders may be more in tuned to environmental issues and impacting green sustainability issues, where as the public is more focused on economic issues first.

Harrison: Yeah, yeah, good example of that is the bill that is now on Capitol Hill, the Cap and Trade Bill that’s moving forward. Originally was called the Climate Change Bill and now it’s the Security Energy and Security Act. How companies came together with environmental groups to take a position early on, again, part of the positioning that we talk about in the book and the formation of the US Clean and Climate Action Partnership. US Cap, US Climate Action Partnership, involving companies such as Duke Energy and Dow Chemical and DuPont, and Florida Power and Light. And the environmental defense in RDC all sitting down, and okay, this thing is coming. What sort of commitments can we make? How much reduction in carbon emissions can we all agree on that will make sense? And those getting involved early, taking a stand, positioning the companies to be supportive of the right kind of regulation, in order to give the company some sort of certainty, more certainty about what they would have to comply with and what’s achievable. It does show a social consciousness, but also shows a political awareness that you haven’t seen to that extent before. Where people involved very early on, collaborating together toward getting the right kind of outcome and the bill that has emerged from the energy and commerce in the House reflects that input from the US Cap. It’s very close to what they said. Reduction in 2005 standards by 17 percent, by 2020 of carbon emissions, greenhouse gas emissions is very close to what the US Cap suggested.