“If companies do not feel the need to be socially responsible, social responsibility will be forced upon them.”

We asked the European Ombudsman about corporate citizenship in a politcally polarised world

Image: ©European Commission

As European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly holds the EU’s institutions and bodies to account: recently, she has criticised the European Investment Bank for its handling of complaints over its investment in a mining project, as well as how the Commission dealt with its former president's decision to accept a job at Goldman Sachs.

Communication Director asked her about political polari­sation, corporate citizenship and the role of communications.

Interview by David Phillips.

In June this year, you spoke at the EACD’s Brussels Debate on corporate citizenship in a polarised world. From your perspective, are we living in politically and socially polarised times?

Certainly, the UK and the US are examples of increasingly polarised societies. Political polarisation has been growing in the US for decades so there was almost an inevitability about somebody like Trump becoming president. In the UK, it is a little more surprising. It has been caused by Brexit and the political mistakes that have been made around it, as well as the capacity of some people to communicate brilliantly about it.

Within the EU, there is increasing polarisation, particularly east/west, and with countries like Poland, Hungary and Italy who are pushing back at the EU on many issues. We are all supposed to unite around common values, but in recent years, these values have sometimes been called into question.

"We are all supposed to unite around common values, but in recent years, these values have sometimes been called into question."

Technology and social media have enabled this polarisation as calm voices tend to be drowned out. To be heard on social media, which is such a busy loud space, you have to shout and perhaps take positions that are quite black and white. That intensifies and exaggerates the polarisation that we see in in many political systems.

With this in mind, would you say that we are witnessing an unravelling of the social contract between government, business and society?

Perhaps it is a reordering. Part of the aftermath of the financial crisis is EU scepticism, Trump, polarisation and growing distrust among people towards the ‘elites’ or ‘experts’. People used to trust that experts – whether regulators or the political class – were looking after the public interest. That all fell apart during the financial crisis, and has echoes that continue to this day and that filter into all sorts of areas.

"People used to trust that experts – whether regulators or the political class – were looking after the public interest. That all fell apart during the financial crisis."

For example the anti-vaccination movement, which has given rise to serious public health implications in some developed countries, and the climate crisis debate, which in some countries, including the US, is seen not as a rational evaluation of  verifiable facts but rather a matter of opinion. The idea that climate change has become politicised is ridiculous, given that we are all going to be challenged by this in years to come.

In addition, whereas previously we had traditional media with a hierarchical structure in terms of how we got our news, now everybody is a publisher, everybody is a journalist, everybody can comment. In the past, if a public health expert made a statement, we would in general accept it. Nowadays almost no statement goes unchallenged, and that creates doubts. The erosion of trust is having real-life impact on people's lives. It is not an abstraction.

Perhaps people have lost trust in the idea that there are leaders who are concerned about the public good. We are all conspiracy theorists these days.

There are of course corporate leaders and politicians who are concerned about the public good, but a few bad apples can ruin everything. There is currently a very strong focus on technology companies, and what is remarkable is that their value is measured not in millions or even billions, but trillions. The financial weight of these companies is extraordinary and arguably unprecedented, and with all of that money comes a great deal of power and responsibility. However, what people see now is how companies use that power to extract even more money and to wield influence in a way that many people do not see as being in the public good.

"With all of that money comes a great deal of power and responsibility."

It is entirely legitimate for companies to make money, but when the foundational ethic and values of those companies trickles down to simply how much more money can be made, people feel disillusioned and wonder about corporate leadership.

Is it possible for corporates to be good citizens without compromising their business profits?

Absolutely, but the question is how much profit do you want to make? Everybody wants to live in a country that is generally prosperous, in which people have access to good healthcare and social protection, and with a minimum of bad social and societal outcomes. But those bad outcomes can happen when companies avoid taxes and so do not leave enough in individual countries’ coffers to pay for the sort of social infrastructure that makes countries pleasant to live in for everybody. Such issues should be discussed by these big companies. If companies do not feel the need to be socially responsible, social responsibility will be forced upon them.

Is 'the Greta generation' shaping up to be tougher on these issues than baby boomers of a previous generation?

Very much so, because for this generation climate catastrophe is real to them in a way that it has not been real to us, and that is the difference. In addition, social media helps to spread messages easily. The entire issue has been mainstreamed, it has moved away from being solely in the hands of activists and is now in the hands of the ordinary kid on the high street, and that is making the difference.

You mentioned trust and the role of media. As a former investigative journalist, do you feel that the media is fulfilling its role of providing the public interest reporting they used to do?

Yes, I think so. You can see it in some of the excellent work done by groups of investigative journalists that come together from various countries pooling their expertise, looking into areas such as the safety of medical devices or tax evasion. While some excellent and transformative work is being done, it takes two things to make something change. You need the great journalism and transparency, but you also need an equal reaction from whatever power base it is, be it a government or something else, to act on that transparency, otherwise nothing happens.

I have made the point very often that Donald Trump was the most transparent election candidate: we saw his misogyny, we saw his racism, we knew exactly what he was like; nevertheless he is now president of the United States. The New York Times and other media outlets battled day in and day out throughout the presidential campaign, tracking every statement and tracking every lie, tracking every exaggeration. Yet if their aim was to prevent someone like that becoming president of the United States, then clearly they failed.

People want to believe certain things and our capacity to block out anything that impedes us from doing so is immense. A world is created – whether by Bolsonaro in Brazil or Duterte in the Philippines or Trump, or Farage – that people like; it speaks to them. And the people who create these worlds are often excellent communicators.

"A world is created, whether by Bolsonaro in Brazil or Duterte in the Philippines or Trump, or Farage, that people like; it speaks to them. "

Hannah Arendt, the brilliant philosopher and writer, said that the narrative of the Nazi regime (and let me be clear that I am not at all equating that to what we are discussing) was that they swapped facts with motives. In other words, when presented with the fact they looked at the motive of the person exposing the fact. Donald Trump is particularly genius at it, because whenever he is accused of things that would have seen the end of many presidents in the past, he paints it as an ideological attack by his enemies. The motivation becomes the story, rather than the fact.

But isn’t every student of journalism or history taught to consider their sources?

Many of these people excel at deflection. However, they are also able to point to the hypocrisies of the ‘good guys’. When Hillary Clinton accepted a large speaking fee from Goldman Sachs, which had been so implicated in the financial crisis in the US, it damaged her enormously. When she criticises Trump, he can in turn point to her taking money from this bank. 

Was that your motivation for criticising former European Commission president Barroso for accepting a position at Goldman Sachs? Because it plays into that narrative of the EU being a gravy train for hypocritical bureaucrats to line their pockets, so it is a self-inflicted wound.

EU leaders are concerned about a lack of trust, concerned about EU scepticism, concerned about populism, but such actions feed into this narrative. The work that I have done in relation to these kinds of issues tends to be reported mainly in the populist press, because for obvious reasons those stories give rise to a particular caricature of the EU. It is unfair to paint the EU like that, given the amount of excellent people it has doing work precisely and only in the public interest.

You said that corporations need to have conversations about who do they want to be – is that where the role of communications directors comes in?

Communication is everything. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody sees it fall, how do we know it has actually fallen? Because the communications director tells them! It is profoundly obvious that communication is the seedbed of so much of what any company wants to do. Therefore, the selection of communication directors is very important. They have to be people who have a 360-degree view of the world, who know all the elements of how their organisation or company works, and the values that the company wants to put out. The communication director can lead on this, but can also show how this can be programmed into what the company does and how it can be communicated.

"The selection of communication directors is very important. They have to be people who have a 360-degree view of the world."

But to do that you have to have a communications director at a high level within the organisation – not necessarily always at every top level meeting, but always aware of the big decisions that are being made and able to give their input.

In my own office, Gundi Gadesmann, the head of communication, is a key part of my core team. She is aware of the big cases that we have and where we are on certain issues so that she is in a position to message about my office in the way that I wish it to be messaged. She also gives feedback to me on how certain things are likely to be received.  Communications directors cannot be an add-on with no link to the rest of the organisation. They have to be an integral part of it

In 2017, you were awarded the Schwarzkopf Europe Award for your “tireless work against the erosion of the EU”. Why is the European Union so important to you?

On a personal level, I owe my public life to the EU. When I left school in 1975, Ireland had been in the EU for just a few years and it was only because of our membership of the EU that a lot of the discrimination against women in the workplace was scrapped. My government was forced to get rid of the marriage bar – whereby on being married women in public service had to leave their job – and forced to give equal pay. Had we not joined the EU, it would have taken a long time for the government to get up to speed on that. So whereas countries with nationalist leanings argue that the greatest protection comes from your own country, I had the opposite experience: the protection came from the EU.  

The EU is not perfect and part of my role is to help it to improve but the EU is a force for good, not just for Europe, but globally, and certainly at a moment like this.


Emily O'Reilly

Emily O'Reilly was elected as the European Ombudsman in July 2013 and took office on 1 October 2013. She was re-elected in December 2014 for a five-year mandate. She is an author and former journalist and broadcaster who became Ireland's first female Ombudsman and Information Commissioner in 2003. in 2007 she was also appointed Commissioner for Environmental Information. As a former political editor, broadcaster and author, her career attracted significant domestic and international recognition including a Harvard University Fellowship in 1988 and multiple national awards. She has written three critically acclaimed books on Irish politics and media and is a current member of the International Advisory Board of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism.