Making Business Better

1 August 2014

CSR is an acronym for “corporate social responsibility.” It’s the way a business entity regulates itself in areas such as health, environment, human rights and other externals to its primary mission.

BP is a big oil company, and not an acronym for anything. Founded in 1909 as the Anglo-Persian Oil Co., it changed its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. in 1935, to British Petroleum in 1954 and to BP in 2001. In 1999 Christine Bader ’93 went to work for this nonagenarian corporation, and by her own admission, she fell in love.

The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist is the story of that romance, and it’s not exactly happily-ever-after.

The honeymoon was sweet. Bader (below) went to Indonesia, where BP was overseeing extraction of natural gas from the Tangguh gas field, one of those risky energy sources that high prices have made potentially profitable. BP knew the risks included environmental damage, political unrest and local economic disruption.

Christine Bader ’93

By most accounts, including her own, Bader and BP did well with their social responsibility in Tangguh. She moved on to China, where BP was collaborating with a Chinese company; that work seemed more frustrating.

Back at corporate headquarters in London, BP paid Bader to work part-time as an adviser to the United Nations special representative for business and human rights. Bader is justifiably proud of the results of this work, the “Ruggie Principles,” which protect and respect human rights in business. She started full-time at the UN in 2008, yet her heart belonged to BP.

If this is a love story, then in 2010 Bader found her lover in bed with the babysitter.

In the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes. Workers die. Crude oil leaks. BP backpedals. At a 2010 hearing Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) summed up how bad BP looked: “There is a complete contradiction between BP’s words and deeds.”

Bader can’t disagree and suffers a crisis of confidence. After a chat with a friend—also a Corporate Idealist, one of the sad ones “so marginalized that they don’t even know” they have no power in the corporation, Bader asks a probing self-critical question:

“Am I that deluded as well? Do I sound just as ridiculous, talking about the great things BP has done on human rights on a few projects in far-flung corners of the world, when the company’s behavior much closer to home appears to have been the opposite of exemplary? … Perhaps.”

This is brave writing, because this reader can only reply, “Well, yes. You sound like a lover betrayed, but trying to believe.”

Now a visiting scholar and lecturer at Columbia, Bader believes Corporate Idealists can “nudge our companies toward a vision of a better future.” Nudge is also the title of an important 2008 book that argued for a “libertarian paternalism” to offset the false assumption that most people make choices that are in their best interests. Perhaps this is also true for corporations—which are, after all, our fellow citizens, for better or worse.

Bader extends her metaphor this way: “The honeymoon is over. … It is time to settle in for the long haul, recognizing that my partner isn’t perfect and loving him all the more for it. Despite the failings of big business, I find myself still optimistic about its ability to make a positive difference in the world.”

It’s cause for some optimism that Bader and others like her are working to maintain the conscience of companies like BP. It’s not enough to make me trust the company, but it helps.

Corporate Idealist is no chronicle of natural selection. Bader was not a young person passionate about oil drilling who evolved an ideal view of the industry; she went in as an idealist to make business more responsible.

That’s the paradox of the Corporate Idealist. Milton Friedman wrote that, within the law, the only social responsibility of business is “to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” The Corporate Idealist is no more engaged in those activities than the army chaplain is in fighting the war. What’s the difference between a Corporate Idealist and a Military Chaplain? In the daily battles of business, there are no believers in the foxholes.


What Did Zeke Emanuel’s Mother Put in the Cereal?

28 August 2013

Amherst Magazine, Summer 2013

 Why write a memoir? Ezekiel J. (“Zeke”) Emanuel ’79 suggests a reason for his, Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family:

“For years,” he writes, “I had been jotting down random stories and memories I wanted to share with my children.” As family lore, Brothers Emanuel excels. It’s funny and poignant, a ’60s childhood starring three little rascals who try their parents’ patience with their pugnacious pranks. Zeke, the oldest, was studious and bossy but got into plenty of mischief. So did Rahm, who became mayor of Chicago, the city where they grew up, although he was “quiet and observant.” Baby Ari, now a fabulously successful Hollywood mogul, the model for the abrasive Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage, was “forceful, rambunctious, highly social and hyperactive.”

Zeke Emanuel '79Zeke Emanuel ’79, brother of Rahm and Ari

Perhaps the leading American bioethicist, Zeke is vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the Obama White House and chaired the bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health. But this is not an intellectual autobiography.

Neither is it a tell-all political or celebrity memoir, although it does expose some childhood mayhem. There was vociferous arguing around the Emanuel dinner table, fisticuffs with neighborhood kids and scrapes with teachers and police, all happening amid the social and political upheavals of the ’60s. The boys’ mother was an early and active supporter of labor and urban civil rights. The issues of the day were their daily bread.

A revealing chapter in his education and this book comes when Zeke, after his bar mitzvah, takes up study of the Pirkei Avot, a compilation of Jewish ethical teachings and maxims. The story of the way he learned to understand his family’s ethical foundation is best understood by reading it, but he summarizes it neatly: “Somehow, we all feel obligated to do good.”

We hear less about Emanuel’s education at Amherst, where he wasn’t all that happy. One of his college buddies meets Emanuel’s mother, of whom the friend recalls, “She always seemed a tiny bit dangerous.”

Dangerous and fascinating: Marsha Emanuel emerges from Brothers Emanuel as the character you wish had a bigger role. “My mother seemed a sort of expert nurturer, a woman who could make any child feel safe, secure, and valued,” Emanuel writes. “She was a highly intelligent, energetic, and motivated woman who was denied other careers, and motherhood was her profession. At the time it was a logical and productive way to channel her energies. I suspect that millions of other mothers in these pre-women’s-liberation days did the same.”

That passage’s uncritical acceptance of early-’60s sexism begs for deeper reflection. Marsha suffered “emotional storms,” as Zeke recalls them, and “tempestuous moods.” Why so moody? An intelligent, educated woman gives up career for family, has to explain to others that her political activism is not harmful to the children and then sits glumly in the station wagon on family vacations. Her problem, you might say, has no name, except that Betty Friedan exposed it in 1963 as “the problem that has no name.”

The boys also suffer under uncritical gender essentialism. Their angry and sometimes violent acts are praised. “[W]hen problems arose we did not have many ways to discuss them deeply. … So early on we internalized the notion that it was easier to give someone a kiss or a hug or a punch than to struggle to elucidate the nuances of our private feelings and emotions.” Emanuel says this is a “paradox” in a family that liked to talk so much. But might the boys’ violence have some relation to their mother’s silence?

Emanuel also suggests a second reason for writing a memoir:  to answer “the cereal question.” The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once begged him to introduce her to his mother, “to find out what she put in the cereal.”

Brothers Emanuel provides a sort of answer: travel, love and laughter, mixed with Jewish social gospel. If this is unsatisfying as a “how-to” guide for perplexed parents, Emanuel eloquently concludes that he is the product of an improvisatory riff of “jazz parenting.” That explanation works, especially if you believe what Louis Armstrong said when asked to define jazz: “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

As Emanuel writes of his childhood, “I saw that a man’s work was important, that he must pursue it tirelessly, and that it might require certain sacrifices.” I learned to write at the same time and place as Zeke Emanuel did; I’m sure that by “man” he means “person.” The person whose work and sacrifices I want to hear more about is Marsha (Smulevitz) Emanuel, the mother of three remarkable boys, whose tantalizing tale remains to be told. k

Paul Statt is a communications consultant in Philadelphia.


Everybody Likes a Shipwreck

1 April 2013

IMG_20130302_191647“Terrible Disaster” is the name of a game my favorite 4-year-olds play. With couch cushions, throw pillows, the dog’s bed and anything else that’s soft and safe, Claire and Abby build a fairytale castle or pirate ship on the living-room carpet.

My part is to destroy it in a shipwreck or hurricane, stranding the giggling girls in an uproarious heap on the carpet, all the while intoning seriously, “It’s a terrible disaster!” It’s all make-believe, of course.  In telling the story, I’m in control, scaring the girls even as I’m assuring them that all’s well. They might call me the Master of Disaster.

The original “master of disaster” is political consultant Chris Lehane. That’s been his epithet sinceNewsweek stuck it on him in 1995. Lehane had captained the PR response that successfully weathered the scandals of the Clinton White House. He tells those stories and many more in his new book, Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control (Palgrave Macmillan), co-written with Mark Fabiani and Bill Guttentag, in which he also enlightens us about the techniques that inspired The New York Timesto dub him the “Master of the Political Dark Arts.”

It’s not really black magic, though, just an appeal to some facts of life. Everybody loves a story, and every story needs a crisis. As Claire and Abby—and all the rubberneckers on the Jersey Turnpike—know, human curiosity about catastrophe runs deep. Everybody likes a shipwreck, although we would rather see than suffer one. Masters of Disaster is a pilot book for navigating the almost inevitable public relations kerfuffle in your future.

Ten Commandments almost seem too many. The Golden Rule of PR is that you have to tell your own story. If you don’t, somebody else will. In romance, it will be your rival; in politics, your opponent; in business, your competition. A story needs a beginning, a “turning point” and an end. Every turning point is a crisis and inspires a story. PR is storytelling, and storytelling is how public relations professionals like Lehane craft “damage control.” He helps folks whose livelihoods depend on being chattered about and paid attention—politicians, actors, sports stars—when the public gaze gets too intense. “I can do this myself,” might be your skeptical reading of Masters of Disaster, after being entertained by Lehane’s witty re-retelling of famous PR disasters. But most of us, like Claire and Abby, require a little help with our tales and welcome the calm presence of an avuncular storyteller.

On the evidence of this book, Lehane (an Amherst trustee) is the guy you want to be seated beside at dinner: a charming raconteur of ruined reputations. Sometimes the fun of the tale is that Lehane was there, as in Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater, but many a PR disaster he recounts—in politics, business or sports—is a familiar tale told well: Tiger Woods, Herman Cain, Tylenol.

Trained as a lawyer (Harvard 1994), Lehane and his coauthor Fabiani run a strategic communications firm that counsels businesses, actors, politicians and pro athletes: characters whose public images often are formed where law, money, politics and communications meet. His firm has represented clients as varied as Goldman Sachs, Lance Armstrong, the National Hockey League and Hollywood studios.

But my favorite among his stories recounts how he and his wife rescued the reputation of their pet Lola after an altercation with an overzealous canine companion at the dog park. It’s instructive to see how Lehane applies his commandments for damage control in such a homey setting, far from Washington or Hollywood. It would make a great movie.

As in the classic movies, Lehane mines nuggets of dialog to adorn his commandments. You know the lines.Sunset Boulevard: Be ready for your close-up (that is, get your facts straight). Cool Hand Luke: Do not fail to communicate. Casablanca: You may feign surprise, but never let yourself be shocked. The latter reinforces a subtler message: the story you tell has to be believable. What Lehane learned at the movies is to provide a plot, characters or a setting that the public is already familiar with.

Lehane himself is now starting a movie career of sorts. He and co-author Guttentag have written a film,Knife Fight, a satire loosely based on Lehane’s work in political imagineering. Lehane’s story comes around and makes sense somehow: He convinces politicians to think like directors, to see the campaign like a movie and create a narrative. Then Lehane’s story becomes the nar­rative. Who plays Lehane? Rob Lowe, of course, whose career once went like this: Brat Pack, sex tape, rehab.

Onscreen and off, professional actors understand this need to invent and reinvent our stories. Joan Crawford, whose mercurial career could serve as an object lesson in Masters of Disaster, speaks the truth in Otto Preminger’s 1947 melodrama, Daisy Kenyon: “There’s nothing like a crisis to show what’s really inside people.”

(Published in Amherst Magazine, Winter 2013)