SD 2012-PCP(5x7)-1005In their 2013 book, Conscious Capitalism, Whole Foods Co-CEO John Mackey and Conscious Capitalism, Inc. co-founder Raj Sisodia discuss how the prosperity creating marvels of capitalism are so often misunderstood, maligned, or narrowly defined.  We who choose to devote our livelihoods to public relations can well relate to these same frustrations.  Whether practitioner or educator (I dare say there’s a bit of both in each of us), we work in a field commonly associated with publicity, spin, and/or propaganda alongside those who are “good with people” (or social media, party planning, etc.) but lack strategic insight, business sense, and an understanding of how the outcomes of stakeholder relationships have a broader impact on society.  Combine public relations with capitalism, and, well, you have a fine mess:  Short-term focused, narrow-minded profit-seekers concerned with “a good image” that maximizes stock price and helps sell lots of stuff.  Oh, my!

 As a former financial analyst and corporate practitioner turned educator, I admit there are days I am ready to eschew public relations and instead claim economics as my chosen field.  Surely it’s better to be seen as dismal rather than manipulative, right?  But then I remember well those incredible moments when stakeholder interactions produced mutually beneficial change, not only in the parties involved, but also, amazingly, in the broader community.  What keeps me going as an educator is the desire for my students to have that same experience as change agents in their chosen settings.  I am a true believer in the power of capitalism and public relations when together they serve a purpose higher than making a buck.

“Public relations” as a term is mentioned only once in Mackey and Sisodia’s book, and it is in reference to free publicity garnered through “earned media.”  Public relations as a normative practice is prevalent yet subliminal throughout the text.  From the start, the authors use examples and evidence to assert:

Free-enterprise capitalism must be grounded in an ethical system based on value creation for all stakeholders….By becoming conscious, [business] can do what it does even better.  It can create more community, more mutuality, and paradoxically, more profit, by engaging everyone in the system. (p. 22)

 So what does it mean to be conscious?  Conscious capitalism, in their view, is not represented by the Occupy movement (backlash, but no alternative vision); focus on the environment at the expense of other stakeholders; or even CSR, which they argue gets treated as a strategic add-on rather than the realization that “a good business doesn’t need to do anything special to be socially responsible.  When it creates value for its major stakeholders, it is acting in a socially responsible way” (p. 37). 

 What became readily apparent to me while reading this book was that conscious capitalism – defined as a relational, value-driven approach to key stakeholders – relies on the same principles as ethical, effective public relations:  relationships, mutuality, and community.  The role of public relations in conscious capitalism is multi-faceted, challenging, and necessary in each of the four tenets Mackey and Sisodia describe: higher purpose, stakeholder integration, conscious leadership, and conscious culture and management.  In this and two subsequent posts (i.e., The Second Tenet of Conscious Capitalism and The Third and Fourth Tenets of Conscious Capitalism), I offer insights on the potential contribution of public relations to each of these tenets.  Let’s start with the first tenet of conscious capitalism; that is, what public relations practitioners can do to help organizations find and act upon their higher purpose.

The First Tenet of Conscious Capitalism: Higher Purpose

The authors refer to an organization’s purpose as “the difference you’re trying to make in the world” (p. 47) and note “every major profession has a higher purpose as its reason for being” (p. 49).  Ideally, public relations as a profession should likewise be “animated by service to a higher purpose, one that is aligned with the needs of society and that gives the profession legitimacy and value in the eyes of others” (p. 49).  Numerous consulting firms specialize in the development of brand platforms, of which the higher purpose of the organization should be a part.  Public relations practitioners can help organizations discover their higher purpose through the following framework I have used with both corporate and educational entities, based in large part on management gurus Collins and Porras’ guidance in their book, Built to Last.  Consider these basic elements of a brand platform:


Mackey and Sisodia describe vision as a “vivid, imaginative conception or view of how the world will look once your purpose has been largely realized” (p. 47).  A vision should be long-term in focus and inspirational to those committed to achieving it.


Core Values

These are timeless principles steadfastly held to guide the organization, regardless of changes in the marketplace.  Truly core values are unchanging and non-negotiable.


Core (aka Higher) Purpose

For what reason does the organization exist beyond making a profit?  Begin with an initial response, and then ask “And why is that important?” Repeat this questioning until the core, or higher, purpose is discovered.


External Positioning

How best can the organization convey its vision, values, and purpose in a way that resonates with external stakeholders while being succinct, compelling, and differentiating?

Too often, the vision, values, and higher purpose of an organization reside solely in the minds of its founders or executive team.  These essential elements, when discovered and broadly shared, provide clarity in decision making, consistency in communication, and a shared purpose that can inspire employees and engage stakeholders.  From a professional standpoint, knowledge of an organization’s higher purpose enables practitioners to affiliate with firms that share their personal values.

 When clearly defined, an organization’s higher purpose guides its public relations practices with certainty.  If a practice doesn’t align or potentially conflicts with the higher purpose, it isn’t done.  Public relations practitioners have a viable role in demonstrating an organization’s higher purpose with its many stakeholders through actions, not mere words.  For example, practitioners can guide organizations to enact their higher purpose through philanthropy and community outreach but should also thoughtfully consider how a higher purpose influences media relations, investor relations, and even crisis response.  Infusing practices with purpose is our responsibility, and our expertise, but we must move beyond a publicity, or even short-term profit, mindset to do so.  Operating at a higher level of purpose renders decision-making that is strategic rather than tactical, positions practitioners to be managers rather than technicians, and enhances the professionalism and perceived value of the practice.  And that’s good for us and society.

Examples of higher purpose statements from Conscious Capitalism (pp. 46-48):

Whole Foods: Whole Foods Market is passionate about helping people to eat well, improve the quality of their lives, and increase their lifespan.  Our purpose is to teach people that what they put into their bodies makes a difference, not only to their health and to that of the people who supply the food, but also to the health of the planet as a whole.

Disney: To use our imaginations to bring happiness to millions.

Charles Schwab: A relentless ally for the individual investor.

Humane Society: Celebrating animals, confronting cruelty.

American Red Cross: Enabling Americans to perform extraordinary acts in the face of emergencies.

 Sandra Duhé, Ph.D., APR, Southern Methodist University

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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5 thoughts on “Part I- The Role of Public Relations in Conscious Capitalism

  1. Many thanks, Marcello. I think the term “holistic” is ideal in describing the work we have the potential to do, and I agree we need to draw on other disciplines to do so. I appreciate your note!

  2. Hi Sandra, I appreciate your broad view in underlining the links between strategic PR, strategic brand management, management and conscious capitalism. I favour a holistic approach across disciplines and conscious capitalism as you point out is a good example. Good job!

  3. So true, Alma. Employees are often the forgotten public in public relations, yet there would be no business without them. They are walking, living ambassadors of a company, so why not be the source that keeps them informed? I’m delighted my comments resonate with your experience. Thanks for posting.

  4. Thanks, Sandra, and Bob, for making me aware of the book Conscious Capitalism and the concept. I appreciate your discussion and especially the sentence, “Too often, the vision, values, and higher purpose of an organization reside solely in the minds of its founders or executive team.” Few people including corporate titans understand that what they believe and know is not transparent; failure to communicate is default mode. Working with clients of my PR agency, our team would often bring news about their own company to people who worked there in communications functions. And it was worse with employees outside of corporate communications. In every organization internal communications should come first – and it is too often neglected or ignored in favor of showy ads and events.

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