Global Policy Forum

Howard Rubenstein on Corporate Responsibility


By Pranay Gupte

Forum Daily News
March 8, 2001

Howard J. Rubenstein founded Rubenstein Associates 47 years ago and has made it into one of America's most distinguished public-relations companies. In New York City, Rubenstein is considered a powerhouse, representing a staggering number of titans of the Establishment, and Fortune 500 companies. His company also represents the State of Israel. Rubenstein spoke with Forum News Daily at his office recently. Excerpts from an interview:

What do you say to your corporate clients about image making?

I think it's important for them to realize that with global communications the way they are, they have to play to their strength and develop communications concerning the things they stand for. That not only includes their product, but the philosophical positions that they take. I think it's essential, coming into this century, for them to pay attention to their communication strategy more than ever before. I don't like the terminology of spin control, or image making. What I really like to do is portray the factual content of a company, and get that out. And if the substance isn't strong, correct the substance.

Nongovernmental organizations are asking corporations to be much more transparent and accountable. Can they really afford to?

They can't afford not to. I think it's essential for companies to look at their public posture, determine what their goals are, and then provide as much information as they can to the public; through media, through the Internet, through printed materials and through meetings. Too many companies just shut down the flow of information. They do what is legally required and nothing more. I think that's a big mistake.

When NGOs talk about transparency and accountability, it's a little like Oliver asking for more in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. Do you see the situation as being insatiable, that the more you give them, the more they'll ask you?

Well, I'm certain that will happen. And there are certain limits that you have to set. But you have to be reasonable. You have to know the limits, legally, of what you can and can't do. For example, you don't want to give your trade secrets away. But in a general sense, transparency is essential. You have to be flexible. You have to determine what will help the community, the world community, with the information that you have. So, sure they'll demand more. They'll always demand more. But, if you're careful, you can satisfy that demand without compromising the bottom line. In fact, it may even help boost overall profitability.

In this day and age of globalization, can image-making and public relations be compartmentalized by country, or is there a global approach?

You can target a lot of what you do as a corporate entity. The various language differences, the cultural differences—you have to pay attention to these things. But with global communications the way they are, you can't just go into a box and think you can be contained there. Everything you do moves internationally on the wires, on television, by all means of communication. The days of "compartmentalization" are pretty much over. One must maintain and project underlying corporate philosophies and practices. Any corporation that doesn't realize that what you do today in a local area will go worldwide very quickly, instantaneously, doesn't understand modern-day communications.

What is the ideal corporation?

The ideal corporation has a sense of global and community responsibility. Too many of them, faced with a problem internally, will say, "We'll shut down the information flow, and if we're called, we'll answer the question, but not fully." The ideal corporation realizes that it's a member of the global community. That they have responsibility not only to their employees, to their stockholders, to the people that deal directly with them, their customers and so forth, but that they have a responsibility to the general public and to the financial community. If they realize that, and they act as if they are an individual, they will be able to protect their own reputation. Not by lies, not by spin control, but by the actuality of what they do.

How is the business of public relations changing in this era of globalization? It's changing dramatically. Today—though we're based in New York—we represent clients that are involved in China, Israel, the UK, South America and Central America. The dramatic change that I see is that when you're in a media capital, such as New York, you have access, worldwide, to the communications networks. When I first started, and into the first several years of my business, the focus was strictly local. Today, the focus is international to a very large extent. My New York-based companies think internationally. They invest internationally. And what we do here is read and seen throughout the world. When I was in India, just a month ago, and turned on CNN, I saw two or three of my clients, which proved to me that communications has changed. And improved. Now, there's a danger to that too. If the corporation doesn't "do what's right,, that will be exposed on a much larger scale. If the corporation acts appropriately, that will be projected. So it is urgent for CEOs to understand that dynamic.

How essential is it to be able to understand how to do business in countries where the kinds of values that you have been emphasizing—openness, ethics, honesty, which find resonance in the United States—may not find resonance in some other cultures?

It is essential that corporations maintain these values regardless of where they operate. As you can currently witness in many countries, illegal activity that was once winked at and accepted, is no longer tolerated. I strongly urge corporations to stand by this higher standard because when they are working internationally, and do something that's legally wrong in another country, it will assuredly come back to haunt them. People don't want to deal with inappropriate behavior and crookedness and, increasingly, corporations are choosing not to violate local laws or international laws of ethics.

What is your definition of the news cycle, when it comes to your corporate clients?

There is a continuous news cycle, particularly with the advent of the Internet and all news stations, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. You can turn on television, all over the world, any time of the day and night, and you will see the news being projected. So, the news cycle of 10-15 years ago, that's gone. In my business, I receive calls in the middle of the night—1 AM, 2 AM—with the time zone changes and all. And I respond to that. Our staff responds to that, knowing that if you ignore it, you will be behind the curve. And you very often can't catch up with the first wave of publicity.

There are some who would argue that Howard Rubenstein is just setting the bar too high. Is there any room for compromise in your standards? You should never compromise your ethical standards. In almost every country now, scandals have started to take the front pages. Things that were acceptable in the past, are no longer acceptable. I would advise a person not to compromise on ethics. Don't succumb to the temptation of earning more money on the back of an illegal act. It's a big mistake. I don't compromise and I would urge any CEO not to compromise that way.

But then doesn't a company lose its competitive edge in an international context?

I've seen situations where some PR companies promise anything with a wink and a blink, and they intimate that they can take care of "things." Well, I might be at a short term disadvantage, but I enjoy a tremendous long term advantage, because major international corporations would prefer to deal with someone of a high ethical standard. Why? Because they won't get into difficulty. Nor will I. I'd rather lose out economically short term in exchange for the long view of a solid base of respect. The basis of my company has been built on hard work, professionalism and a good standard of ethics. And I advise all the PR and advertising companies—all of them—to have the same standard. It's very tough, sometimes, to go into a new environment and say, well over here, you've got to take care of things. You've got to pay money, illegally, under the table. It's a horrible mistake for someone to accept that.

Has it become obligatory for the modern corporation not to overlook social and environmental issues?

Many corporations, traditionally, have overlooked environmental issues. As a result, our air and water are polluted. You go to some of the countries that I've visited, the skies are black with soot. And the corporations just look at the issue of making money. That's a tremendous disservice to our society. I would say that each corporation should examine its position and attitude toward the environment—and they don't have to go overboard in getting involved in every environmental issue—but they should certainly be careful that they themselves do not poison our environment. I also advise corporations that I deal with to seek out good causes to back economically. It doesn't have to be every cause. Some of the causes could be environmental, health, welfare, and the human condition. I strongly urge all of the companies and individuals, to select something that excites them. Adopt the cause, move in heavily, back it financially, and give it time and talent, so that you leave your mark on society. There's more to success than making a lot of money. And I also find that an individual or corporation that does this in the nonprofit sector, will usually find the result very gratifying, in terms of their profit making ventures. The public usually will recognize it, and reward them by being their customers.

What about the thorny question of human rights?

My advice to corporations is to focus on the issue and realize the environment of the country that they're functioning in. I think worldwide there is a greater movement toward the protection of human rights. Countries that never paid attention to it in the past, are now paying attention to it.

I think the corporations, in whatever country they're involved with, have to be advocates for decent living standards and human rights. Because, as I see globally, it's just a matter of time, before virtually every country will walk away from the oppression that is often inflicted upon their populations. One of the reasons why? The communications explosion. You see now, all the time, photographs and television, exposing human rights violations. No country can sustain that attack, and live in our community of nations, in a successful way economically. So, I would say that the corporation should not be blind to the issues of human rights, and try to exert whatever influence they have to correct those violations.

What about the issue of cultural relativism in human rights?

I run into that all over the world—for example, on the issue of sweatshops. I was deeply involved in the effort to curb sweatshop abuses in different countries. We knew that in some countries, the standard of living, and the standard of pay, was far different than it is here in the United States, for example. But companies have to look at the working conditions to see that the pay level at least meets the standards of the country in which they are functioning. So, yes, you do have to recognize cultural differences in those countries, but if you can move them, toward a higher standard, that's a value. And you very well may not be able to move them to the standard of a Great Britain, or a US, or Canada, or countries like that. But it's worth the effort, to just step up that ladder to improve the human condition.

In your vision of things, as far as your enterprise goes, what does globalization mean?

It means that the corporations that we represent, that are functioning on a global basis, should tell their story internationally, in a positive way. They should take the good things that they're doing, project them, and try to improve the environment that they're working in, and that they're selling into. I think that's their bottom-line responsibility.

But when you apply those criterias to your own company, what would you say?

I think I've been doing that with my own company. All of the senior account executives here that work with corporations, speak to those corporations in a positive way of their need to get involved in the public interest. Now in my own company, for example, I am one of the founders of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, our Holocaust museum, in lower Manhattan. For almost 20 years, a group of us have been working on that. And we now have a wonderful museum, depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, but other things too. We depict Europe, right before the war, and before the Holocaust. The Museum also tells of the recovery of the Jewish community afterward. We have thousands and thousands of exhibits, telling a positive story, of the people that were afflicted, and then came back. We're going to have our exhibitions moved to other countries, so that others will see them.

That's in the works. If those countries have a similar exhibition, we'll do exhibitions here at home with the purpose of telling the story of the brutality of people, to their own people and others. And in the hopes that we can avoid future inhumanity to man. So in the public interest, from a PR standpoint, I think we have a lot to offer, to call attention to things like that. That's what I'm emphasizing.

You've had one of the most distinguished careers in PR and, of course, public affairs generally. How would you spell out your own personal business credo?

My credo's pretty simple and it's what I demand of all of my employees. Work hard, be honest, seek knowledge, provide creative and intelligent service, contribute to society and never compromise on ethics.

What explains your durability?

Well, this is my 47th year in business. And we have several hundred employees, and my stamina is fed by my enthusiasm for what I do. And from the belief that a good deal of it is important. Aside from trying to keep in good physical condition by exercising and whatever, I try to keep alert mentally, by focusing, not only on the issues that I'm dealing with, but the issues that you read and see and hear, that might not have a direct bearing on what I do today, but have a direct bearing on our society. And, as long as I keep that enthusiasm, and keep a young attitude, always willing to change, be flexible, I think I'll stay in this business.

My two sons are here in this business, my daughter is coming in part-time now. And the people that have worked for me, many of them have worked 20, 30 years with me. My focus is on proving to myself, my family, and the people I deal with, that you can be honorable, and be successful at the same time.


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