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CSR and the Media Industry: Where Censorship and Social Responsibility Collide

By Tom Watson on June 20, 2007No Comment

CSR and the Media IndustryCSR and the Media Industry: Where Censorship and Social Responsibility Collide
By: Alisha Fernandez and Cara Helms, 6/20/07 


The mainstream infiltration of iPods, cell phones, hand held PDA’s, and even bigger and better versions of the good ‘old-fashioned’ television, means that all an ordinary American consumer needs to do is turn around to find an entertainment source.  This technological coup has inadvertently propelled media companies to the forefront of a national debate over the role of the industry in producing entertaining, yet socially responsible content and whether or not this increased reach means that they should also shoulder a greater burden of the community’s needs. 

This discussion of what corporate social responsibility means to the media was touched upon at the Conference Board’s 2007 Leadership Conference of Global Corporate Citizenship, where onPhilanthropy met Michelle Crozier, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Warner Bros.  As a media/entertainment company best known for big budget flicks like the Harry Potter movies, Warner Bros. is striving to find a way to be socially responsible in an industry that has thus far been slower to jump on the CSR bandwagon than some others.  Additionally, as a corporation whose mandate is to entertain, Warner Bros. walks the “fine line between freedom of expression and directed content” as Crozier explained in a breakout session.

onPhilanthropy sat down with Crozier and her colleague, Lisa Rawlins, the Senior Vice President of Studio and Production Affairs at Warner Bros., to discuss ways in which media companies are consistently working to adjust both their programming content and their CSR strategies to meet these changing times.  Once mutually exclusive, these two areas are now becoming increasingly intertwined.

Among their peers in the media/entertainment industry, where CSR is often not clearly defined, “Warner Bros. defines CSR as being an active and responsible corporate citizen”, stated Crozier.  “We recognize that we are an influential member of society and need to act as such.”

Warner Bros. is one of seven divisions owned by Time Warner, each with independent departments focused on philanthropy, volunteerism and community outreach, and is thus governed not only by its own internal CSR function, but by the parent company’s as well.  Time Warner is well known, particularly among large media conglomerates, as a leader in CSR.  “We’re the only ones that have produced a comprehensive report, integrated programs across divisions — from a philanthropic and outreach perspective,” said Crozier.

Crozier and Rawlins, along with their colleagues at Warner Bros. have embarked on a campaign over the past five years to not only implement Warner Bros.’ CSR programs, but also to integrate them into the many different core business units of the company.  This has helped Warner Bros. to not just react to issues in the community, but to help customize their outreach as a best fit.  “There was always philanthropic outreach, but not with purpose or strategy,” Rawlins said.  “Historically we didn’t listen as carefully to the community, whereas now we strive to form more meaningful and long-lasting community partnerships.”
Warner Bros. divides its CSR into three priority areas:  youth enrichment — providing opportunities for disadvantaged youth to pursue careers in the entertainment industry; community engagement — empowering communities and supporting employees in board leadership; and environmental stewardship.  Its philanthropic investment is focused in the local communities where the majority of their employees live and work, particularly the greater Los Angeles area.

Beyond their core CSR initiatives, Warner Bros. is also tasked with walking a narrow line between producing socially responsible programming and their general corporate mandate to make a profit.  This topic, increasingly thrust into the headlines, has been a hot-button issue for news/media outlets all the way up to their regulatory counterparts in the government.  Crozier states:  “We can’t set out to produce socially responsible content as part of our corporate mission — this would make us an entirely different company…We produce, market and distribute content that meets the needs of the global community.” 

To address specific hazardous behaviors, they do create policies that may limit the use of certain activities in their films while still protecting the integrity of the entertainment.  This can be illustrated with the concerted effort of Warner Bros. and other Time Warner companies, such as New Line Cinema and HBO Films, to reduce the use of tobacco in their films.  This was a successful venture evidenced by an impact of tobacco in films study in 2005; in all G, PG, and PG-13 films, Time Warner tracked a 32% decrease in the number of tobacco depictions.  Some current behaviors that Time Warner is watching include violence, alcohol and obesity.  However, this work did not stop the barrage of criticism the Warner Bros. received when the violent film, The 300, was released earlier this year.  Crozier acknowledges this can be a very slippery slope and that “it’s a fine line between avoiding censorship and supporting creative expression.”

Several speakers at the Conference Board event agreed that for companies to become truly socially responsible, CSR needed to be integrated into their business and measured as part of their bottom line.  Time Warner, like most companies, is still struggling with how to achieve this.  onPhilanthropy was surprised to find that Warner Bros.’ highly publicized production partnership with Participant Productions, a film production company founded by social entrepreneur Jeff Skoll that has produced such progressive films as Syriana and An Inconvenient Truth, has only a small mention in its CSR report.  This is because, according to Crozier and Rawlins, it is considered an investment:  “[The partnership with Participant was] a very clear business decision.  There is an element of corporate responsibility to it, but it was a business decision to a large extent.” Crozier also mentioned that even companies like HBO who are “known for producing a lot of documentaries and socially proactive films…are still making those decisions on what the audience wants, and what resonates with the creative people they work with.”

Integration is not easy for media and entertainment companies, particularly when measuring the ROI for the company on a philanthropic investment.  Because of the nature of what they do — provide entertaining content — it’s not quite as simple as assuming that if Warner Bros. is a good corporate citizen, more people will see its films.  “It’s hard for people to be aware of what the Warner Bros. brands are, or to develop a loyalty based on our CSR,” Crozier said.  “We don’t necessarily see people tune into a show because of the CSR values of the company — it’s about enjoyment.” 
These issues are not likely to go away anytime soon, but Warner Bros. plans to be a leader in addressing the CSR challenges faced by the media and entertainment industries in the next decade.  While many media companies are working on their own internal environmental sustainability (for example, News Corp. recently announced it would be going climate neutral by 2010), Crozier and Rawlins feel that “the call is not so much for business practices to be socially responsible, although we have been a leader in sustainability for a decade, but for our programming to reflect it.”  Crozier feels that transparency will be the key moving forward, if Warner Bros. does start to explore the issue of socially responsible programming: “The value of a media company from any nonprofit’s perspective is the power we have to inform social issues — are we really going to go down that path?”

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