Is it okay for a health campaign with a mission to help all Australian families "achieve energy balance and maintain a healthy lifestyle" to be funded by some of the largest corporate players that many believe are the cause of our nation's health problems?
This question will surely test where you draw the ethical line, but this idea is essential to the integrity of the corporate affairs profession.
The Together Counts campaign, managed by the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, is partnered with Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Lion, Nestle, Campbell Arnott's and even Sugar Australia to name a few. It doesn't take an expert to know that many of these organisations are not exactly in the healthy foods market.
Partnerships like this are always strategic. While we would hope that this network has a transparent agenda, it's hard to deny there is not a conflict of interest. So is it just greenwashing?
The difference between corporate social responsibility and greenwashing
Greenwashing is a term that describes when a corporate entity makes claims or actions that overshadow the potentially damaging work it is actually doing. It is perception management, but it isn't credible.
Generally, it has environmental connotations, such as an oil company conducting an environmental protection campaign after an oil spill.
This is not to be confused with corporate social responsibility (CSR), however, as true CSR has an honest agenda which should incidentally benefit an organisation – not the other way around. When the strategic onset is to manipulate consumers' perceptions of a brand or company, this is greenwashing. It is inauthentic and many in the Australian corporate affairs sector view this behaviour as unethical.
Building integrity in the corporate affairs profession
For instance, the Public Relations Institute of Australia clearly suggests in its code of ethics that such practices are unprofessional and do not support the development of the industry. In particular, the third clause states, "Members shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information and shall take care to avoid doing so inadvertently," and clause five prevents representation of "competing interests."
So does Together Counts abide by the industry best practice? Communications experts know that there is never just one side to any story. But it is essential to critically examine each communicative activity, especially if there is the possibility that such tactics may be perceived as misleading.
With CSR a key element of corporate affairs in the 21st century, it is important to have a clear ethical compass, especially when framing claims. Corporate communications specialists need to act in the best interest of what company they represent, but also the community as well.