Thursday, 10 February 2011

McLibel: responsibility, the hard way

Every company would like you to believe that responsible business is part of their “corporate DNA”. It’s not. Companies are no more “hardwired” to be responsible (or irresponsible) than us mere mortals.

Responsible corporate behaviour evolves from governing principles underpinned by nitty-gritty policies and everyday processes. It’s not a feel-nice philosophy. It’s a case of non-nonsense management mechanics.

So how do integrated responsibility management systems come into being? Companies have two basic options: the easy way and the hard way. 
The easy way involves the company taking a measured, calculated approach that chimes with its business operations and objectives. Principles are voluntarily decided; issues voluntarily assessed; policies voluntarily established; and then targets voluntarily set. Hey presto.

The hard way scraps all sense of voluntarism and demands that the company get up to speed across all its operations immediately. What’s more, as the company is doing so, every inch of its activities are publicly scrutinised with the attention of a forensic scientist.

That second option, essentially, marks the route taken by McDonald’s. When the global food chain threatened to sue two unknown UK campaigners for libel in 1990, it effectively waved goodbye to an easy ride.

Judy Kuszewski provides a detailed appraisal of what became known as the “McLibel” affair in Ethical Corporation’s recent Classic Case Studies report. The article charts the story of how two individuals and one protest leaflet gave rise to the longest court case in British legal history.

As a case study, the McLibel experience holds a dual message. First, avoid the law courts wherever possible. Even if the company wins (as McDonald's did, albeit in a pyrrhic sense), the negative publicity can be disastrous. (It’s a lesson that the world’s largest pharmaceuticals also learned in another classic case study covered in the report).

Second, it shows that the hard way has at least one upside. As Kuszewski's article indicates, several commentators maintain that McDonald’s has emerged as a better managed, more responsible company as a result. (Judge for yourself.)

Would it have preferred to take the easy way? Yes. Does it regret playing legal hardball? Almost certainly. But at least, the company can point today to a comprehensive management framework – and one that’s born from sweat and tears rather than genetics.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Oliver, glad you liked the McLibel article. For the record, I don't think I argued the lawsuit and aftermath have made McDonald's better managed or more responsible, but some observers have made the case that the McLibel experience was the foot in the door. Your wider point is correct: they chose the hard way. There is a case to be made that the publicity from McLibel was so disastrous for the company that they had no choice but to commit to the wider CR agenda whether they wanted to or not; there was no other way to shake the hard-set opinion of the company as a pariah. Pariah status can take decades to overcome, of course - just ask Exxon, Monsanto, Nike, Union Carbide (Dow), Microsoft and any of the other CR practitioners dragged unwillingly into positions of action. The difference with McDonald's is they brought it on themselves.