National Capital Chapter

Moving Forward by Looking Back

By Lawrence J. Parnell 

This blog post is sponsored by The George Washington University.

Today is Earth Day. For many communications professionals in Washington D.C. and nationally, it is a time where many strategic PR programs designed to demonstrate social engagement and corporate responsibility are launched.

Some of these will succeed, some will not. To understand why, and identify how we can improve our outcomes, it’s helpful to go back to the beginning. 

Earth Day debuted on April 22, 1970 – over 50 years ago. It was created by Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., with a goal of “raising awareness and increasing pressure on elected officials to take action to protect the environment,” according to the History Channel.  

Earth Day 1970 was a day of demonstrations, teach-ins, protests and public awareness efforts to highlight the environmental problems facing the world.

As you might imagine, the business community largely stayed on the sidelines in 1970. In an article for Forbes last spring, Yale professors Jeffery Sonnenfeld and Dan Esty described environmental concerns as a “side issue” for corporate leaders in the 1970s, adding it was seen as “… an obstacle to their real business of making and selling goods for a thriving nation.”  

Things have changed since 1970. Today the business community is more actively engaged in social responsibility and environmental awareness programs, consistent with a renewed focus on purpose. 

Sonnenfeld and Esty also wrote about how expectations about corporate responsibility have changed over the past 50 years, saying “Today, no business can go forward without a profound appreciation for what is required to maintain …… its ‘social license to operate.’ Every company must continually demonstrate its legitimacy and show that it adds value to society, not simply profits to its own shareholders.” 

As communicators, the challenge to keep our companies and clients moving forward is two-fold. 

First, we need to advocate for relevant and meaningful corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that go beyond simple donations. 

Second, we need to engage employees and the public to magnify the positive impact of our CSR initiatives.

To succeed, we also need to master the fundamental drivers of business (e.g., revenue, profit and return on investment) and enhance our knowledge of social responsibility communications. 

In our master’s in strategic public relations program at GW, we have specific courses to accomplish these goals. This reflects our belief that CSR must connect to core strategy and demonstrate reputational and operational benefits to succeed. 

So how do we move forward?

Ask yourselves the following questions when assessing future CSR programs: 

  • Does the program connect to and support business strategy?
  • Will it engage employees?
  • Will the program last and make an impact?
  • Is it unique and creative? 
  • How will we measure progress and evaluate results? 

By following this simple outline, we can implement programs that continue the progress begun on that first Earth Day in 1970. Not a bad way to celebrate an anniversary! 

Lawrence J. Parnell, M.B.A., is an award-winning Public Relations professional and academic who is an Associate Professor and director of The George Washington University Master’s in Strategic Public Relations program. 

He has served in this role for 12 years and has built the GW Master’s program into one of the best known and admired programs in the US. Professor Parnell also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Strategic Communications at The GW School of Business.

Prior to coming to GW, he had a successful 35-year career in the private and public sector. He has worked in government, corporate and agency settings and in national, state and local political campaigns. He was recognized as PR Professional of the Year (2003) by PR Week and was named to the PR News Hall of Fame in 2009. The GW Master’s program was named the “Best PR Education Program” for 2015 by PR Week

He is a frequent author and speaker on communications strategy, crisis and issues management, leadership skills and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at industry conferences and universities around the world. He is quoted often on communications management and crisis communications in the national, business and trade media. 

He is the co-author of a leading public relations textbook – Introduction to Public Relations from Sage Publishing. The text is now in its second edition and has been adopted by over 30 leading undergrad PR programs across the country. Parnell also contributed (as co-author) a chapter on CSR and Public Diplomacy in the book National Branding and Public Diplomacy (Peter Lang Publishing) published in Spring 2017. 

He is active on Twitter at @gwprmasters and on Facebook and LinkedIn.