Until now, how corporate social responsibility (CSR) works to secure access to public and elected officials has remained a mystery. For the first time researchers at the University of Bath have been able to explore this question using internal British American Tobacco (BAT) documents to look at how the company used CSR to re-establish access with the UK Department of Health following its decision to restrict contact with major tobacco companies and then shape the agenda of subsequent meetings. In the event, Department of Health officials blocked BAT’s attempts to change the course of tobacco control policy.
The British government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal shows clearly the increasing importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) for large corporations wishing to securing political influence. It suggests that political CSR is being used effectively by companies in the food and alcohol sectors to provide an ostensibly robust case for voluntary regulation and free them of any concerns they may have about working in partnership with big corporations.
Our study found that CSR facilitates government access by focusing discussions on the importance of cooperation and consensus. Companies can convey the sense that they are offering support for government health policies by linking their political priorities to widely accepted social and political values. BAT linked its preferred policies to politically salient values such as harm reduction, child health, and the importance of cooperation between business and government. This enabled BAT employees to represent their dialogue as benign and unlikely to compromise government policy on tobacco control. Once the company had secured access to health officials, it then tried to use CSR to influence their priorities. It encouraged them to take notice of alternative modes of (voluntary) regulation, and revise their concerns about whether the industry could be trusted to work in partnership.
Gary Fooks, Research Fellow at the Tobacco Control Research Group said,
“It’s becoming increasingly apparent that big corporations are using CSR to pre-empt legislation and generally influence public policy, but we don’t really know much about how CSR works to produce these effects. Our study provides grist to the idea that the constructive veneer that CSR gives to corporate lobbying – particularly its seductive appeal to values such as partnership and co-operation - makes proposals which are not in the public interest appear less threatening, good for everyone and, therefore, easier to swallow for policymakers. Whilst this isn’t such a problem where officials have a strong sense of the public interest and are knowledgeable and sceptical of the intentions of corporate lobbyists, it’s likely to be a big problem where they don’t adequately consider the differences between corporate interests and those of the broader electorate.”
Anna Gilmore, Director of the Tobacco Control Research Group said,
“Our study underlines corporations’ increasing use of CSR for political ends. One of the brilliant things about research based on previous confidential industry documents is that we get quite a frank portrait of what companies are doing and why. The problem with contemporary government CSR-based initiatives, such as the Public Health Responsibility Deal, is that what’s going on is quite opaque to public scrutiny. This needs to be corrected. There’s some interesting work being done by NGOs but it’s just not enough. Governments across Europe need to be a lot more transparent in their dealings with multinational companies which look set to have an increasing impact on global health.”
“The international presence of BAT and its promotion of CSR across its subsidiaries suggest that the problems we’ve identified are likely to be widespread. What’s particularly worrying is that government departments across the world are opening themselves up to corporate social responsibility, expanding the number of access points and providing a very porous policy environment for these sorts of political strategies.”
The Story in Brief
Historically, BAT had enjoyed privileged access to policymakers and was regularly consulted on plans for new government policy. However, during the 1990s, its relationship with the British Government steadily deteriorated. By the end of the decade senior BAT managers were expressing increasing concerns about the company’s declining political influence which culminated in the Department of Health’s refusal to meet with members of the company. Martin Broughton (BAT’s chair between 1998 and 2004) described the relationship as a “Mexican stand-off” which had potentially serious ramifications for its ability to manage the impact of EU enlargement on its business in Eastern Europe.
BAT concluded that its ability to project itself as a good corporate citizen was key to its ability to normalise relations with the Department. Its platform for engagement was its Partnership for Change Programme (see below) – the blueprint for its current CSR programme. After trying unsuccessfully to persuade Alan Milburn, Secretary of State for Health, to work in partnership, Broughton went over Milburn’s head and lobbied Tony Blair to use his influence to encourage a more conciliatory approach from the Department of Health. Whilst rejecting BAT’s arguments on a number of other issues, Blair gave Broughton the green light to talk to Department of Health officials about Partnership for Change.
Having been granted access, BAT employees used CSR initiatives and themes to set the agenda of discussions with health officials and encourage a continuing dialogue. According to BAT documents the content of meetings that subsequently took place closely mapped the themes BAT officials wanted discussed. BAT documents from the time are consistent with BAT using CSR initiatives strategically to influence the policy alternatives under discussion within the Department of Health. More recent evidence in the public domain suggests that BAT’s use of CSR as an agenda setting tool is ongoing.
British American Tobacco: British American Tobacco is the second largest tobacco company (by profitability) after Philip Morris International. Its CSR programme has been steadily accepted and approved by large parts of the investment and CSR communities. Senior employees are now frequently invited to speak at public engagements on CSR and business ethics and the company has won numerous awards for its CSRP.
British American Tobacco’s Partnership for Change Programme: BAT’s Partnership for Change programme covered a number of key areas such as voluntary marketing codes, youth smoking initiatives, accommodation of smokers and non-smokers, and reduced risk cigarettes. BAT also used the programme as an organising platform to frame its CSR initiatives in the early 2000s. By emphasising the value to public health of meetings between tobacco companies, government officials, and public health groups in the form of summits and forums the initiative was well designed to generate dialogue with the Department of Health.
Public Health Responsibility Deal: Companies from the food and alcohol sectors are currently enjoying greater success in influencing public health policy in the UK through the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal. The Deal encompasses five cross-sectoral networks established to drive forward improvements in public health. At the time of writing, corporations and business organisations outnumbered non-business organisations and individuals (academics, nongovernmental organisations, representatives of public institutions) two to one in the food and alcohol networks that are responsible for setting immediate public health objectives in these areas. By devolving policy formation and delivery to companies whose products and marketing practices constitute the key proximate drivers of alcohol- and diet-related ill health and mortality this marks a potentially important shift in public health policy towards coregulation. The organising principles of the Deal draw heavily on the idea that CSR can be exploited to promote public health. Further, devised when the Conservative Party were in opposition, the existence of the Deal owes much to the success that large food and drink companies had in using CSR as a means of both gaining access to senior Conservative Party members and developing an alternative agenda for public health policy, which attempts to reconcile public health with business competitiveness. Our findings—and the absence of strong evidence suggesting that co regulation is capable of aligning the business models of big food and drinks companies with the demands of public health —suggest that the role of CSR in the Deal needs to be subjected to closer scrutiny.
Read the press release: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-08/plos-tcu081911.php