I was surprised and confused by this BBC report that alleges that the late Bruce Harrison, a dear friend and Page colleague, was at the center of an “audacious PR plot that seeded doubt about climate change.” However, I think it’s important for Page to reaffirm, in the face of this report, our commitment to the truth. At Page, we are committed to authenticity, by which we mean, trust is earned by doing the right thing.
I don’t have any information about the substance of the BBC report, but I was confused, because I had always believed that Bruce was an environmentalist who created environmental public relations, not an anti-environmentalist who sought big contracts with forces aligned against fighting climate change. The Bruce Harrison that I knew was a thoughtful, generous and supportive colleague who was dedicated to authentic and truthful communication based on facts and respect for human values.
This earlier piece in the Washington Post by Melissa Aronczyk, who is quoted in the BBC report and teaches media and politics at Rutgers University, also mentions Bruce, but with a bit more nuance. She writes, "He believed in the potential of open minds and transparent communication to solve seemingly intractable differences of opinion about air quality, vehicle emissions, indoor tobacco smoke and climate change. The problem was many of these issues were not just differences of opinion; they were scientific realities bumping up against corporate and political interests. And Harrison was working for the latter."
It may be possible to understand the BBC report and Professor Aronczyk’s statements in the context of legitimate unsettled scientific issues about climate change at that time.
I don’t know what Bruce did and said at that time, and I’m not an expert on the state of climate science in 1992, but I can say that Page today supports deep and genuine commitments to eliminate carbon emissions, and all-out efforts by the enterprises we support to fulfill those commitments.
Our new CCO Guide on Stakeholder Capitalism and ESG is clear about this. We believe business has an opportunity and a responsibility to build societal value, not just shareholder value, and we see the chief communications officer (CCO) as key to making this real.
The central thrust of the guide is that CCOs have a responsibility and an opportunity to ensure that the enterprise leadership takes its commitments to societal value seriously. We said, “This requires CCOs to use all of their skills as influencers to ensure that the right systems, processes and incentives are put into place.” It’s not about the message; it’s about doing the right thing.
Bruce Harrison was a valued colleague who, I believe, would have endorsed the thrust of the CCO Guide and agreed with the thoughts of our namesake, Arthur W. Page, who once presciently said: “Public relations is 90% doing and 10% talking about it.” In other words, you build reputation with actions, not words.
We reject the view of one observer quoted in the BBC report, who said, “If you say something enough times, people will begin to believe it.” The point of public relations is not to get people to believe something that isn’t true; and furthermore, we have faith in the public to believe what they see, as opposed to what they hear. The point of public relations is to earn trust by doing the right thing and getting appropriate credit for it.
The BBC report about Bruce saddens me, but it gives me an opportunity to affirm that strategic communication is not about green-washing or purpose-washing, but rather about advocating within the enterprise to take positive actions to address real societal issues. I hope and trust that my late friend would endorse that view.
This is an excerpt from our CCO Guide on Stakeholder Capitalism and ESG, available here, a …
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