Media balance and CSR: What’s wrong with the Wall Street Journal?
By Kathleen Hosfeld
Following a recent Special Report by the Wall Street Journal, commentators had a field day with columnist Dr. Aneel Karnani’s assertion that the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility is fundamentally flawed. Many of the comments pointed out that not only was his analysis fundamentally flawed, it was the “same ole, same ole” whateverness we’ve been hearing from free market idealogs for the last 15-20 years.
Karnani, who is Professor of Strategy at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M Ross School of Business, asserts that all CSR initiatives have to “pencil out” financially before they are embraced by CEOs. “Pleas for corporate social responsibility will be truly embraced only by those executives who are smart enough to see that doing the right thing is a byproduct of their pursuit of profit. And that renders such pleas pointless.” See the article here.
Based on the interviews that Pat Hughes and I did for her study: “The Leadership of Sustainability,” and my work with clients, my perspective is that engagement with CSR or sustainability evolves. Some leaders we spoke with started with a “because it’s the right thing to do” mentality. They kept their experiments small to see if they would hurt or help them financially. If it didn’t hurt, they kept going. In businesses where CSR or sustainability was not baked in from the beginning, it is developmental, occurring in stages. As a result, early experiments have to be either revenue positive or at the least revenue neutral.
However, there are many firms who find that holding objectives for financial, social and environmental benefit simultaneously creates a crucible for innovation. They have broken away from the either/or thinking represented in Karnani’s article, and are now in the territory of Third Way thinking. Third Way thinking goes beyond hierarchical rankings of choices, one being the better “good” than another. Instead, it “holds the tension” between competing “goods” until a new solution appears that honors all of them. Harvard Business Review even published an entire special edition last summer about CSR and sustainability as drivers of innovation, citing breakthroughs of over 30 companies.
So, what is the Wall Street Journal’s problem? Commentators responding to the article repeatedly questioned the lack of balanced perspective, and a pattern of editorial bias against values-based management approaches. Companies every day are proving Karnani wrong with their actions. Is the Journal simply blind to the evidence? Or are the editors ignoring the firms who are doing well by “doing good” because they seem to be “outliers” rather than mainstream. If they are intentionally disregarding outliers, then they do their readers a disservice because it’s in the outliers where the seeds of breakthrough innovations are sown.