What do you do when Jon Entine Calls?

This interview appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of News & Issues in Corporate Social Responsibility published by Barnes & Associates / Boston

Editor's Note: Having Jon Entine call you is like having Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes show up on your doorstep. When you open the door, you know you may have a problem.

Jon Entine is an investigative reporter best known for his critical stories on The Body Shop. The article "Shattered Image: Is the Body Shop Too Good to Be True" (Business Ethics, September 1992), received an Honorable Mention from the National Press Club 1995 Consumer Journalism Award.

As a professional journalist, Entine has written and produced magazine pieces for Sam Donaldson, Diane Sawyer and Chris Wallace for ABC's PrimeTime Live. His television production credits include ABC 20/20 and the NBC Nightly News.

Jon Entine is credible. He does his homework. He knows his stuff.

With much of the right sensitivities to social issues and a voracious appetite for the truth, Entine is like a junk-yard dog: once he gets his teeth into you, he doesn't let go! Just ask Anita Roddick.

Although you may disagree with his style, Jon Entine has made a contribution to our understanding of corporate social responsibility. The following interview took place in Boston by CSR.


CSR: What should companies do when Jon Entine calls?

Entine: If it's an investigation, don't return my phone calls. Don't talk to me and don't answer my questions. Reporters fish for context. They are sly by nature and often float scenarios to gauge reactions. Most face deadline pressures and can't dig endlessly. We're realistic. We'll usually move on if you don't take the bait. Corporate officers should rarely talk to someone in the press unless they know them well.

On the other hand, a press inquiry is a wake up call. It's signaling that something is wrong. You may have lost touch with customers or employees. Good reporters are usually on to something, even if it's only a public relations issue. Don't ignore a warning sign.

CSR: So how should you handle a potentially hostile press call?

Entine: The most important thing — and I can't stress this enough — is don't denigrate your critics. The response of The Body Shop turned a manageable crisis into a tabloid fiasco. It escalated into "he said/she said" stories which prolonged the agony for months. Their self-righteousness just reinforced the allegations. Their insular corporate character became the story.

Hubris and hypocrisy are the blood for a shark. Reporters instinctively believe sketchy leads have some validity if you react defensively. Arrogance signals an inflexible corporate culture. That means there are probably serious problems that top management refuses to see. When reporters get targeted, they just dig in their heels.

Also, don't expect friends in the press to stand by you if they become convinced that you've not been utterly straight with them. It's a carnival barker's axiom: live by the press; die by the press.

If your company makes a mistake, or you stumble in responding to a problem, remember that you can cut your losses. Reporters are not the enemy. They may not let you off the hook easily, but they're very sympathetic to executives who are candid and show a human side. Look at Lee Iacocca. When Chrysler was struggling or when it got caught rolling back odometers, the press treated Iacocca with kid gloves. By admitting screw ups, he was disarming.

CSR: What does a company do if it believes it is being wrongly criticized?

Entine: Even if you feel wronged, companies shouldn't appear defensive. You may win in the short run by attacking critics but business is a marathon. Companies should say, "Yes, there are issues." Don't flog yourself. Just dig below the surface and find out what are the problems. Tell your side of the story but don't be shrill. If you're in the right, the truth will prevail over time.

CSR: What is meant by "social responsibility" at the corporate level?

Entine: I know what it's not. Socially responsible business has become a buzz phrase meaning "do the right thing" as if we all share a common sense of the good. I don't think we do and I'm wary of adopting the personal moral visions of any business person, no matter how well intentioned they may be.

This may sound harsh, but the corporate social responsibility community has never seen a mission statement it doesn't love.

Are self-proclaiming business visionaries socially responsible? What if you don't campaign for social change but you make a great product, price it reasonably and pay your employees good wages? Are you any less 'socially responsible?' I don't think so.

Jon Lickerman who heads up research at Calvert Group had an interesting observation. He's found that some of the highest profile "socially responsible" companies make pricey commodity products and frequently treat their workers and vendors shabbily. But many CEOs are too driven to see it. Baby boomer executives are the worst.

CSR: What then is social responsibility if its not moral vision?

Entine: To its discredit, socially responsible business has come to mean a set of static principles based on early 1970s standards of liberal propriety. Just look at the so-called ethical screens used by corporate social research organizations like Calvert and the Council for Economic Priorities (CEP). It's usually made up of some hot button moral issues that say little about broad concepts of social responsibility.

Animal testing and defense spending are taboo. A company may have been built on the backs of low pay female workers and not have particularly progressive benefits for women and mothers but hey, if it's run by a woman, that's great. Corporate social responsibility is in danger of becoming the status quo if it doesn't get beyond code words and litmus tests.

Let's look at animal testing. For example, personally, I am not a supporter of animal testing but you cannot be socially responsible if you do not do animal testing.

The ethical standard in the animal testing area is accountability. Take a company like Gillette. It's handling of this issue is really exemplary. It has dramatically reduced animal testing over the years but continues to test ingredients for safety reasons and for FDA approval. It keeps detailed records of every test and makes them publicly available for researchers and customers. It has also spent millions of dollars to develop alternatives. Yet because it refuses to hide what it does by contracting out animal testing to third parties (as do some of its competitors) and have made a corporate decision to take the heat, they have become a favorite whipping boy.

CSR: How then should we measure social responsibility?

Entine: Well, it's not about giving companies letter grades or checks for fulfilling certain social criteria. We need a system that measures a company's character, not its rhetoric. Business is basically amoral.

The best companies understand the need for checks and balances so that no one executive can impose his or her social vision. There is a reason that Levi Strauss, Merck and Cummins Engine, for example, have been around for so many years. They turn out quality products first and foremost. This integrity standard percolates through the entire corporate culture. It's not the top-down visionary model which is far more problematic.

CSR: More and more companies are becoming involved in cause-related marketing. Do you anticipate consumer cynicism as this trend continues?

Entine: Yes and no. I'm convinced cause related marketing is basically a good thing. It raised money. There are people who are critical when a company spends $3 million on advertising to say that they are giving $1 million to charity but companies are going to spend money on advertising anyway and if a charity ends up getting an extra $1 million, then it is basically good. It also promotes company morale. There are many benefits to the corporate culture.

Green marketing may undermine more scrupulous companies. It has certainly lead others to question legitimate companies. Now we have Philip Morris who mix their cigarette advertising with the American value of free speech and it destroys their credibility.

In our society, we depend on advertising for information and I would just as soon we have more sources of information as part of our general marketing programs.

But in our society, we depend on advertising for information and I would just as soon we have some alternative sources. We should all be cautious about social marketing, however, whether by multinationals or New Age entrepreneurs. Greenwashing can kill the movement.