Thursday, November 24, 2011

How many CSR experts are just cheats and plagiarists?

CSR experts, people that write about, research, and practice CSR day-in, day-out are a pretty responsible bunch, right? After all, who would listen to anyone talking about responsible business who they didn't think was, well ... responsible?

Uh, wrong. Unfortunately, if our recent experience is anything to go by, there are some decidedly irresponsible CSR experts out there.  Actually, worse than that; not just irresponsible, but flat-out cheats and plagiarists. And we're not just talking about the usual CSR snake-oil salesmen who are simply out to make a quick buck from some dishonest greenwashing. No, we're talking the supposed purveyors of something resembling objective truth - academics and journalists.

How do we know? Simple. In the last couple of months we've run into several glaring examples of so-called experts simply stealing our work and passing it off as their own. Consider this one that has only just come to light. Jaquelina Jimena, a journalist and CSR adviser, wrote a nice article in the Canadian Mining Journal back in 2009 titled "Is Corporate Engagement Possible Through CSR Blogs?" Well, we would say it's nice, because it is almost word-for-word copied from one of our own blog entries "Corporate Engagement through CSR Blogs", published the year before. She changes our use of "we" to "I" of course, but that is about it. The rest is almost entirely plagiarized from our post. Well, except the last paragraph, which we she didn't copy from us. But that's not her work either. It's directly stolen from a post from our fellow blogger Fabian Pattberg.

Jimena has published other pieces in the Canadian Mining Journal about CSR, all of which, as far we can tell, contain substantial portions of text just cut and pasted from other people's articles and websites. Our friends at Ethical Corporation are a particularly popular source, it seems. Of course, she claims on her LinkedIn page, to be a "professional journalist" as well as a CSR adviser and lecturer, with experience among others advising at the Global Reporting Initiative and Anglo-American.

Now, we're not saying that Jimena isn't an expert in CSR,or in her specialist field of stakeholder engagement and communication. But as a potential editor, employer, client, or reader of hers, would you really put your trust in someone who, from time to time, made a living by stealing other people's work?

It's not just journalists though. While plagiarism in academia is usually discussed in relation to students (and we have to say, this continues to be a big problem in the sector), there are no shortage of cheats standing at the front of the classroom too. Again, our own experience is instructive here.

A few months back, it came to our attention that an article published in the journal Management Decision under the title "Sustainability managers or rogue mid-managers? A typology of corporate sustainability managers" and suppposedly written by professors Tang, Robinson and Harvey, was in fact almost entirely plagiarized from a working paper written by Andy and one of our long time friends and collaborators, Wayne Visser. After someone had kindly pointed this out to us, we informed the journal who did some checking and then retracted the offending piece, acknowledging that "a large proportion" of the article had been copied from ours.

We also did a little further digging and discovered that one of the ostensible authors, Kevin Tang, had even plagiarized almost his entire PhD thesis. It took about 5 minutes to find this out given that he'd copied almost word for word Jennifer Lynes' dissertation about environmental commitment in the airline industry which was easily available on-line. So we informed Lynes (who was suitably shocked) and Bond University in Australia, who had awarded Tang's PhD. They've now taken the online version of Tang's PhD down and informed us that a thorough investigation into the allegations is underway. So you can't check now this one yourself, but believe us, it is a cut-and-dried case of plagiarism, even down to the personal acknowledgments page!

We'd love to believe that these are just isolated incidents, but realistically we think it is just the tip of the iceberg. Both of these cases came to light by accident just in the last few weeks and we only noticed them because they were rip-offs of our own work. Who else is blissfully unaware of getting their CSR research stolen by a so-called expert? And how many other CSR experts are out there passing off someone else's work as their own that we haven't discovered yet?

Academia certainly has been getting into all sorts of cheating scandals recently. Earlier in the year we witnessed the forced resignation of the German Secretary of Defence after revelations of his plagiarized PhD thesis. A few weeks ago, an investigation confirmed that  the noted psychologist Diederik Stapel, the former Dean of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, had falsified data and made up entire experiments over the course of the past decade. Unethical journalism has also been in the news of late, especially around the News International phone hacking scandal. Both professions are clearly in need of clean-up.

At the moment, none of these more high profile scandals have been concerned with CSR experts. Not yet, anyway. But if our experience is anything to go by, it's probably just a matter of time.

Photo by loop_oh (Robert Ganzer). Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

Friday, November 18, 2011

Happy 2 months birthday, OWS!

Its two months today that Occupy Wall Street had occupied Zuccotti Park in New York. And after strong reluctance from the big media (it took most of big US networks more than a week to cover the story) the movement has successfully occupied the news channels for the last weeks.

New York’s mayor duly used the two month anniversary of the movement to finally evict them from their initial site. Ironically though, that decision seems to just have added that other bit of publicity the movement could handily use. By the time of writing, between 15,000 and 35,000 people, depending whose estimate you want to believe, are currently marching in the streets of New York. Mike Bloomberg still does not disappoint as the most effective PR agent of the Occupy movement.

I had a strange déjà vu today when stumbling over one bit of news. Obviously, the evicted protesters in New York are flocking to church buildings to get food and shelter, and to be secure from police harassment. The last time when churches were the only safe haven for civil unrest was when people in East Germany took to the streets in the summer of 1989. Those famous ‘Monday demonstrations’ and their organization started in churches (note: this was before facebook and twitter). By November 9th that year, the wall had finally fallen. And with it the regime that held the country in its grip for some 40 years.

Certainly in Toronto, where the Occupy movement has camped in St. James Park, co-owned by the Anglican Church, a similar pattern is visible. Even though support currently seem to falter, initially the church was one of the crucial supporters of the protest, supplying them with vital access to amenities.

This historical parallel is more than just a co-incidence. Like the demonstrations in 1989, the Occupy movement is only loosely organized, has some rather sweeping demands and has little sense of translating their agenda into the institutional setting of how our society is governed. All they have is a legitimate issue. They are concerned with the fact that governments no longer represent the people, the ‘99%’, and that wealth is blatantly unfairly distributed. It all sounds so familiar to me, up the chants to remain non violent by OWS protesters, very much like the famous ‘Keine Gewalt’ (‘no violence’) choruses which became the signature slogan of East German protestors 22 years ago.

Like communism, the current form of capitalism has created a governance system, where some very few are perceived to control societies and where large parts of the population feel disenfranchised and curtailed in many ways.

The crucial difference to today’s US seems to be that in most US cities the reaction of the police is rather uncompromising and violent. Events in Oakland or the pepper spraying of an 84 year old lady in Seattle are just a tip of the iceberg. In some ways the starkest prove that these protestors have a point is the remarkable police presence. When I visited Zuccotti Park in late October my guess would be that the ratio of police to protesters was at least 2:1.

If it is true that OWS is ‘not productive’ (Michael Bloomberg), why do we need so many police there? The fear of the establishment is palpable. New York just serves as the test tube for this: the Mayor Bloomberg, himself firmly in the ‘1%’, symbolizes the seizure of corporate interests of the political process. To become the ‘democratically’ elected mayor he spent $250m out of his private wealth.

Drawing the parallel to the fall of communism 22 years ago, one big difference seems to be that there is no ‘Gorbachev’ figure. There is no strong, prominent, visible leader on the other side, who understands the legitimacy of the issues and, as Michael Gorbachev at the time, refuses to use the power at his disposal to crush this movement.

This said though, some of the ‘1%’ understand the movement and take it seriously. As business school professors, we occasionally have to go to events where we rub shoulders with these guys. Just yesterday, I was totally flabbergasted listening to one of Canada’s real estate tycoons arguing that this movement is serious and here to stay and that it is something business leaders better take seriously.

It is difficult to predict where this movement is going. At the moment, the fact that it has stayed non-violent has certainly helped to make people sympathize with it that do not ordinarily go out on the streets demonstrating. The other element is the core issue of the movement. It seems that the blatant inequality of wealth and the co-optation of governments by business interests are the common denominator of the protests.

In some ways we have nothing to add to our earlier comments. There are strong parallels between the green movement starting off in the 1970s with pretty similar features. David McTaggart and the other founders of Greenpeace where hardly taken seriously by the establishment back then. But we all know which impact that movement had on politics, business and civil society.

So again, Happy Birthday Occupy Wall Street! And many happy returns!
Photo by David Shankbone, reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why is communication such a big deal for CSR?

Corporate social responsibility often provokes a lot of debate. But one thing that most people seem to be agreed on is the necessity of good communications. Of course, what makes for "good" communications is not so clear cut. Should companies engage in dialogue and debate with their stakeholders? How do you communicate "authentically" with consumers around social issues? And what do employees expects or want in terms of internal communication around CSR? These are some of the questions occupying minds rights now, so it has been interesting to spend the last couple of weeks exploring some of the challenges around the intersection of CSR and communication, both from a research and practice perspective. Not that this has necessarily brought me any closer to the right answers, but I think it has helped a lot in clarifying what the right questions might be.

Last week I keynoted the 1st International CSR Communication conference in Amsterdam, NL, a primarily research conference that also featured a lot of practitioner participants. This was preceded by a doctoral workshop on CSR and communication research where budding PhD students sought to test out their ideas, theories, and methods with experienced researchers like myself and Mette Morsing from Copenhagen Business School. Then, this week I keynoted another pretty unique conference - a mixed practitioner/research conference in Copenhagen on CSR and social media titled "Social media for social purposes".

Suddenly it seems that the communications challenges in CSR are getting a lot of attention. Certainly they are beginning to attract a lot of research activity, whether from management researchers, communications scientists, or media analysts. There is some really interesting stuff happening out there, much of it making use of the new online data that is all around us. I've been impressed by some of the datasets that are being put together using Tweets, blogs, YouTube videos, media articles, and a variety of online texts and reports. The possibilities of analyzing "big data" around online CSR communication are growing all the time. But also, it is clear that we need more than just huge amounts of data - we also need to be asking the right questions.

Consider this. McDonald's, which has been a pioneer in blogging about its CSR practices through its Values in Practice blog, has recorded the following stats from January - November 2011:

Number of posts: 16.
Average number of comments per post: 0.5
Average number of tweets per post: 1.2
Average number of Facebook likes per post: 3.1
Average number of shares per post: 3.8

Now consider this. McDonald's has more than 11m people who have "liked" the company's main Facebook page. That's a lot of people who don't seem to be much interested in what is happening over at their CSR blog. Clearly something is up. CSR experts are saying that companies need to engage in dialogue with their stakeholders. So are McDonald's stakeholders actually not interested in dialogue? Is the way the company is communicating not relevant for them? Is the company blocking interacting on some way or is one way communication actually effective here?

As I say, we don't really have the answers to these sorts of questions yet, but the field is moving fast and through network, discourse, and sentiment analysis, for example, researchers are getting a better understanding of how and why people respond to CSR communications in particular ways.... and what this all means for the society we live in today. There is a long way to go, but it looks like its going to be an exciting and informative journey.


Photo by joshfassbind. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence