Chasing the social enterprise

Had another thought while walking home today yesterday about the social business consulting stuff. One of the reasons that I’m a bit skeptical about PR people converting into more moral, public sentiment-savvy versions of business advisers (‘cuz let’s not kid ourselves, that is what people are talking about here) is that much of the industry writing I read tends to not acknowledge the foibles of successful ‘brands.’ Those ‘brands’ might be clients but more often than not they’re just businesses that the writers admire.

The social planning idea is based on the idea that businesses are better off being more aware, more responsive and that ultimately they’ll be more profitable if they have a social enterprise business nature. That much I think is clear from Jay Baer’s post about these matters, although he uses the term ‘social business’ instead of ‘social enterprise.’

Social enterprise is Larry Weber’s term for organizations that are more adaptable, less hierarchical, more solicitous of advice, extremely transparent and (of course) very digitally active. Weber points out early on that this is a more theoretical concept than one in practice, which gives him some cover, but not much. Compare that description with the tenets of social business consulting that Baer lays out:

  • Social is inextricably tied to corporate culture and business structure.
  • Social is about more than marketing, it impacts every corner of the organization.
  • The dividends from being a social organization are just as important internally as they are externally.

Not dissimilar, eh? I think it’s safe to say that they’re talking about similar concepts, although Weber’s book is based around celebrating the businesses he thinks are striking out on this path where Baer’s post is more about the potential role that PR practitioners can (and will) play in advising businesses to be more like this.

So, I’ll cut to the chase: it’s difficult to read Weber’s book without finding a few screaming omissions. Weber mentions Amazon (in passing) and Apple (which gets more focus) without mentioning some of their more, shall we say, unflattering tendencies*. Booz-Allen, with which Weber opens his book, is also not without it’s own indiscretions.

By pointing this out, I’m not ripping these companies for their actions or Weber for eliding this stuff in his book. Well, OK, I am a little bit, but that’s not why this relevant to the social business consulting conversation. It’s relevance to social business consulting is that these practices that the links describe (abysmal labor records, advantageous reception of government loans that fund a temporary agency [stop laughing!]) are integral to the business model of these organizations. Unless your definition of a ‘social enterprise’ shrugs towards stamping out any sniff of employee empowerment and chuckling at any concept of the greater good, these corporations are decidedly not social enterprises. And they are making admirable profits while being decidedly not so.

And, to bring this full circle, I think if any person, PR or otherwise, advised these companies against continuing their current (and very lucrative) business practices, they’d be laughed out of the room. And from the perspective of the people who run these companies, for whom my fanciful moralistic tales aren’t quite top priority, that laughter would make sense.

Ultimately, no, I don’t see any PR people having the ability to change the business models of these organizations, no matter how persuasive they are (and who says they’ll even want to?…) Changing the business model of an organization is quite difficult, which people in the PR industry damn well know.

And let’s not kid ourselves here: if Edelman or Ogilvy or any of those firms can choose between Apple and SwissBakers as a client, whom do you think they’ll choose? I know, I know, SwissBakers makes excellent food. I worked there for a summer. Something tells me, though, that Apple’s $73 billion balance and consequent budget might be a bit more attractive to our burgeoning social business consultants despite that spotty labor record.

Weber’s book is more a celebration of success than anything else. You could fill thousands of pages with all of the content published after the death of Steve Jobs. How many articles do you read about companies that were environmentally aware, sensitive to labor interests and just didn’t quite make it? Not many, by my count. We like to focus on the companies that win out. And that’s OK (seriously! it is). Just don’t bother pretending that it’s about being a ‘social enterprise’ or having non-hierarchical egalitarianism or pursuing social consciousness. Because it transparently isn’t.

I have no problem don’t have much of a problem with people crediting Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos for being very smart, very successful businessmen. That’s credit they deserve. What irks me, as if the hundreds of words above hadn’t made it clear by this point, is people lionizing these businesses for reasons that just aren’t deserved.

* I had to Google several different permutations of ‘Amazon’ ‘labor practices’ and ‘the Atlantic’ before finally finding that article through LGM, which I remember linking to it. Nice job with the SEO, Jeff!


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