A spiralling logic of responsibility

Although often launched with the best intentions, corporate responsibility initiatives can impose self-inflicted risks on the company’s reputation

In The Prince, Machiavelli argues that a political leader must adjust his governance to how people think and feel. However, while the political leader must take into account the norms and values of his followers, he should not himself be subject to such values. For Machiavelli, it is necessary (and even a political virtue) for those in power to be hypocrites.
Today no one would argue publicly that hypocrisy is a virtue. For corporate as well as political leaders it is paramount that they and the organisations they represent reflect high ethical standards. Thus, promoting such standards is also central in much public relations theory as well as in practice. However, as societal trends change and public expectations concerning the social and environmental responsibility of corporations grow, the very efforts to reflect high ethical standards have become a new challenge to the corporate reputation. Companies that fail to live up to their self-proclaimed environmental responsibilities are accused of greenwashing. Those and similar scandals covering the whole spectrum of social responsibility activities constitute a big threat to the reputation of corporations that fail to comply with these new ‘soft laws’.