Corporate Reputation is becoming more and more important with the advent of social media.

Companies around the globe are doing a lot of navel gazing trying to come up with strategies to enhance and protect their reputation within the community. Millions are being spent on developing social media strategies to ensure they don’t become the next BP or United Airlines or Qantas.

Corporate Social Responsibiity is seen as one of the ways an organisation can demonstrate to their customers and the wider community that they care. After all, if an organisation is pumping millions into research for kids with cancer, they would be producing products in a sweatshop somewhere in SE Asia, right?

With this in mind, here’s an old but a goody from “The Yes Men“. The Yes Men are a couple of pranksters that have forged a career by highlighting some of the more questionable practices of big business and thePR tactics they’ve employed to gloss over some of their less than admirable affairs.

The year was 2004, back in a time before Facebook was everywhere, before Twitter existed and well before one wrong move could cause a media firestorm that engulfed a corporate reputation within hours. The Yes Men set up website called to highlight the 20th Anniversary of the worst industrial disaster in history, the Bhopal tragedy.

On December 3, 1984, Union Carbide’s poorly-maintained Bhopal plant released a cloud of toxic gas that killed 5000 people. Over the next twenty years, an estimated 15,000 more have died from the toxicity, which Union Carbide never cleaned up, abandoning the site shortly after the accident. Because of the accident, an estimated 120,000 Bhopalis require—but, for the most part, do not receive—lifelong medical care. Union Carbide was acquired by Dow Chemicals in 2001. Dow has repeatedly denied responsibility or liability for the Bhopal disaster despite Union Carbide being a wholly owned subsidiary.

BBC World Television sent an email to asking if Dow would like to make a comment about the Bhopal incident to mark the 20th anniversary. The Yes Men decided they should take up the offer and do a little pro-bono PR work for Dow.

Mr. Jude (patron saint of the impossible) Finisterra (earth’s end) becomes Dow’s official spokesperson. Jude announces a radical new direction for the company.

He is ecstatic to make the announcement: Dow will accept full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, and has a $12 billion dollar plan to compensate the victims and remediate the site. (Dow will raise the $12 billion by liquidating Union Carbide, which cost them that much to acquire.) Also, to provide a sense of closure to the victims, Dow will push for the extradition of Warren Anderson, former Union Carbide CEO, to India, which he fled following his arrest 20 years ago on multiple homicide charges.

Pause here for a moment and consider how you, as a PR, would respond if a ‘company representative’ announced on BBC World Television that the company had committed $12,000,000 to an initiative you didn’t know about and that was the complete opposite policy of the company. Then imagine finding out it was complete false.

Just to rub a little salt in the wound, The Yes Men decide they should also help Dow send out a press release that is a formal retraction of the BBC interview.

To be perfectly clear:

  • The Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) will NOT be liquidated. (The fake “Dow plan” called for the dissolution and sale of Dow’s fully owned subsidiary, estimated at US$12 billion, to fund compensation and remediation in Bhopal.)
  • Dow will NOT commit ANY funds to compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require lifelong care. The Bhopal victims have ALREADY been compensated; many received about US$500 several years ago, which in India can cover a full year of medical care.
  • Dow will NOT remediate (clean up) the Bhopal plant site. We do understand that UCC abandoned thousands of tons of toxic chemicals on the site, and that these still contaminate the groundwater which area residents drink. Dow estimates that the Indian government’s recent proposal to commission a study to consider the possibility of proper remediation at some point in the future is fully sufficient.
  • Dow does NOT urge the US to extradite former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson to India, where he has been wanted for 20 years on multiple homicide charges.
  • Dow will NOT release proprietary information on the leaked gases, nor the results of studies commissioned by UCC and never released.
  • Dow will NOT fund research on the safety of Dow endocrine disruptors (ECDs) considered to have long-term negative effects.
  • Dow DOES agree that “One can’t assign a dollar value to doing what’s morally right,” as hoaxter Finisterra said. That is why Dow acknowledged and resolved many of Union Carbide’s liabilities in the US immediately after acquiring the company in 2001.

Most importantly of all:

  • Dow shareholders will see NO losses, because Dow’s policy towards Bhopal HAS NOT CHANGED. Much as we at Dow may care, as human beings, about the victims of the Bhopal catastrophe, we must reiterate that Dow’s sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law.

How do you think this scenario would have played out in 2011?