Lowes and Chiquita show “social responsibility” a slippery slope

I think the focus on social responsibility by corporations is a very positive step. I have long believed that companies can be a force for good or ill in our world, and social responsibility helps them think through their actions. But, as Lowes and Chiquita are both showing “there be dragons there.”

Lowes ran into a firestorm when they first sponsored and then pulled their sponsorship from a TV show “All American Muslim.” Lowes pulled its sponsorship from the show and that led to a storm of protest. Many believe that the decision by Lowes was influenced or forced by a Christian group from Florida protesting the show. The online travel website Kayak also got into the controversy after it backed out of sponsoring the show, but said on its blog that the show “sucked,” and that TLC, the network airing and selling the show, misled them about the nature of the program. Lowe’s is facing a firestorm of controversy, boycotts and threats of boycotts and high profile celebrities looking to jump in front of any TV cameras who happen to show up around this issue.

Chiquita stepped on the proverbial banana peel by attempting to show its social conscience by boycotting Canadian oil based on environmental concerns about extraction from oil sands. It’s kind of a hot topic around here as our hyper-environmentalist city council locally decided some time ago to boycott Canadian oil as well–not a friendly gesture as we live on the US-Canada border and much local business comes from Canada.

Chiquita’s social statement resulted in efforts by Canadians and some Americans to organize a boycott of Chiquita bananas. Of course, the alternative to Canadian so-called “dirty oil” is more oil from the sands of the Mid-East, which, as the Canadian Huff Post article points out, is hardly free of ethical concerns.

The dragons of social conscience and social statements coming from corporate actions surround us. From a corporate standpoint, your damned if you sponsor a show and damned if you change your mind. Your damned if you support Arabian oil or Canadian oil and damned if you don’t. Sorry, but wind power is not safe either because if you say we support wind farms, those bird lovers who decry the occasional avian death will likely try to organize a boycott and perhaps even get Mia Farrow involved.

I find this very disheartening. For one thing, it will likely serve as a damper on enthusiasm for social responsibility. Second, it will likely further contribute to the deadening of our entertainment to the lowest common denominator because what corporate sponsor concerned about their brand will support something that may create a backlash? Third, it shows the power of social media but in my mind in a negative way. Networks of like minded can be quickly built and the pressure these groups and individuals can put on organizations is often way beyond their actual power. It’s a kind of false power, but, it is amplified by the kind of media reports we are seeing on these controversies. Media feed on such controversies so even a small protest, when aided by activist-celebrities, make any editor, publisher or producer slobber. What is particularly sad to me is how the public relations publishers jump on these things and fan the flames of controversy in many ways more irresponsibly even than mainstream media.

No doubt executives will think carefully about implications of sponsorship and their own social conscience-led decisions. That is a good thing. But I hope these flare-ups prove to be benign in terms of brand damage because too much of the kind of political correctness enforcement we are seeing is ultimately going to hurt all of us.