Why are you in business? Is it to spend a million pounds hiring researchers and journalists to investigate your critics' personal lives and families? Is it to add "layers of difficulty" for your opponents, "distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources"? Do you want to recruit third parties "to build an echo chamber of aligned voices" to support your work?
On the face of it, none of these actions would seem to add anything to the service you are offering customers or the career options you are providing to your employees. But these were sentiments, uncovered in the last couple of weeks, expressed by senior business people in the US.
And it was executives at TransCanada Corporation, the energy infrastructure company, who received the PR advice about building an echo chamber and distracting opponents. (Full disclosure: the PR advice was provided by Edelman, where I was an employee between 2010 and 2013.)
How much easier to be straightforward, to believe in the virtue of what you are doing to make money and to engage openly with critics rather than trying to distract them. How much simpler to run a business you can feel good about. As Mark Twain said, telling the truth makes life easier as it means you have much less to remember.
Is that hopelessly naive? Of course, you have to be ready to combat critics when necessary. As we saw during the Brent Spar saga in the mid-1990s, supposedly saintly NGOs can use some pretty rough tactics when they are trying to make a point. Today the social media explosion means lies or misinformation can be spread about you around the world in an instant. And if you are busy trying to make money you won't have time or capacity to deal with it. Hence the PR industry.
But something has gone wrong when clever and ambitious people are using their ingenuity to fight dirty instead of just trying to do a better job for their customers. Such businesses have, like a bad taxi driver, simply lost their way.
Under pressure, their ethos – their way of being – has got infected or somehow perverted. "Fancy" talk about business ethics is not an empty abstraction or a theoretical exercise. It goes to heart of what you are as an organisation, how you operate, what you are trying to achieve, what is considered acceptable behaviour, and where the lines are drawn.
Mission statements that do not really mean anything
In their new book, Solving The Strategy Delusion: Mobilizing People And Realizing Distinctive Strategies, Marc Stigter and Cary Cooper reflect on the dire mission statements that some companies insist on inflicting on the world. A wonky or uninspiring mission statement is possibly a sign that nobody at the top is really thinking very hard, or very clearly, about what the business is for.
Stigter and Cooper report that one company tells the world: "We are a market-focused, process-centred organisation that develops and delivers innovative solutions to our customers, consistently outperforms our peers, produces predictable earnings for our shareholders, and provides a dynamic and challenging environment for our employees." Which doesn't really tell us a lot, does it?
Another says they exist: "To provide products and services to the market which meet or exceed the reasonable expectations of our customers. Satisfying our customers with the appropriate level of quality is a primary goal and a fundamental element of our business mission."
My pulse rate remained steady while working my way through that one. But bad missions statements are not just comically tedious. They are a strategic weakness. And if employees are not clear about what the purpose of the business is, things will go wrong.
A new report published recently by the Chartered Management Institute, called The Moral DNA Of Performance" based on research with 2,500 managers, found strong correlation between (admittedly self-assessed) levels of behaviour and healthy scores for employee engagement, customer satisfaction and commercial success. But this should not be surprising. Good behaviour is habit and character-forming, as Aristotle knew.
A problem with "corporate social responsibility", as it is widely understood and practised, is the misguided belief that a bit of nice behaviour added on top can make up for horrible behaviour going on elsewhere in the business. CSR as PR cannot work.
This is why ethics really do matter. They are what you are about. When things go wrong you do not have a PR problem. You have a real problem. And that is why business leaders always need to have a good answer to the question posed at the start of this column: why are you in business?