Corporations and Conventions

From Robert Reich: Corporations and Conventions:

“At the Democratic convention last week, I kept bumping into two different kinds of corporate professionals. Most have headed over to the Republican convention this week. One type says its job is “public affairs;” the other, “government affairs.” They sound similar but the jobs are quite different.

The “public affairs” types are at the conventions to bring attention to their companies’ commitments to social responsibility. Many of them have hand-outs and fancy brochures touting all the good things their firms do. The “government affairs” types are at the conventions to build their companies’ political influence. They’re the ones in the sky boxes with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

The two types often work for the same big companies but they seem to operate at cross purposes. For example, I met a public affairs person who talked about the great strides his company was making in green technologies. But the government affairs people from the same company have been actively lobbying against environmental laws and regulations.”

I question the accuracy of such a distinction, because really, it is a semantic difference only. As someone who currently works in this field, I can tell you that the people who hand out brochures touting their company’s sustainability initiatives and the people who go meet with Congressional staffers are the same people. The only difference is whom they are meeting.

But really, why should Reich be surprised? As a rational actor, corporations have an interest in playing both offense and defense. To use his own terminology: the public affairs people are playing offense; they push corporate responsibility and social consciousness as a way of proactively warding off unwanted government regulation. The government affairs people are playing defense, as they don’t want any legislation and/or regulations in the pipelines to disrupt profit-making.

A smart corporation would do both in Washington, and it is not, as Reich contends, that “maybe the left hand of corporate public affairs doesn’t know what the right hand of government affairs is up to.” They know exactly what the other is up to, because they are one and the same.

Reich concludes with this:

“But I can’t help thinking that if these companies took social responsibility seriously, they’d put a brake on their lobbying and influence-peddling. Maybe they’d even avoid spending so much on political conventions.”

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