Although the term was not coined until 1953, new research shows that corporate social responsibility (CSR) can trace its roots to the early years of the 20th century and to the editor of one of America’s initial business magazines, The World’s Work.
“From its beginnings in November 1900, The World’s Work was devoted to social responsibility in the public interest,” says David L. Remund, a Legacy Scholar in the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University. Remund is completing his doctoral studies at the University of North Carolina.
The editor of The World’s Work, Arthur W. Page, later became one of the nation’s pioneering and still-revered public relations practitioners. He was the first to serve on the executive management team of a major corporation, AT&T. In 1927, he took his editorial views to AT&T and put them into action, laying the groundwork for the modern CSR model.
Remund’s research paper, “The World’s Work: Arthur W. Page and the Movement Toward Social Responsibility in Corporate Communications, 1913-1927,” traces how Page’s editorial vision reflected progress toward social responsibility in later corporate communications. The paper was presented at the International History of Public Relations Conference in Bournemouth, England in July.
Historians of corporate social responsibility generally agree that the concept emerged in the 1930s and 1940s. It became formalized in 1953 with the publication of Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, a book by Howard Bowen.
Remund’s scholarship, however, shows advocacy for CSR – in form if not name – from a major pro-business magazine much earlier than that. Further, he concludes that through Arthur W. Page, the supportive words of The World’s Work became deeds when Page moved from the editor’s chair into the corporate executive office.
Remund examined nearly 180 issues of The World’s Work. Page’s personal correspondence, speeches and transcripts of oral interviews also were used. Some of the trends Remund found could leap from today’s headlines.
“Five themes of corporate and social responsibility emerged,” he says. “They include environmental protection, labor rights, consumer protection and education, child welfare and corporate transparency.”
In the 1920s, social responsibility was not front-and-center in corporate management. It was a time when, as President Calvin Coolidge stated, “the chief business of the American people is business.”
Yet from his post as editor of The World’s Work, Page was calling for sustainability in logging practices, labor rights for African-American cotton workers, better safety measures for underground miners, greater consumer education about investment banking, an end to child labor, and more corporate transparency.
This last topic was “perhaps the most prolific of the five social responsibility themes that emerged in The World’s Work from 1913 to 1927,” says Remund. “A dozen or more editorials addressed this theme.”
“The editorials from Page’s years with The World’s Work indicate that what is now known as corporate social responsibility was a concern of the man who in 1927 became vice president of AT&T,” Remund wrote.
Once he became vice president at AT&T, Page was instrumental in guiding the actions of the firm that had, at that time, more widely distributed shares among stockholders than any other major American corporation. In keeping with its vision of itself as an “investment democracy,” AT&T was well known for public-spirited management.
In time, Page’s public relations precepts, formed during his years as editor of The World’s Work and put into practice at AT&T, became known as the Page principles. They are: (1) tell the truth, (2) prove it with action, (3) listen to the customer, (4) manage for tomorrow, (5) conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it, (6) a company’s true character is expressed by its people, and (7) remain calm, patient and good-humored.
In a speech, Page said, “we, like all other companies, live by public approval and roughly speaking the more approval we have, the better we live. This is the fundamental reason for seeking public approval. The fundamental way of getting it is to deserve it.”
The World’s Work ceased publication in 1932, a victim of hard economic times. Page went on to a long career at AT&T. He provided counsel to government on programs such as The Marshall Plan and Radio Free Europe.
Page died in 1960. His name lives on through The Arthur W. Page Society, a professional association for senior public relations executives, and through The Arthur W. Page Center, a research unit of Penn State University’s College of Communications. The Center was created in 2004 through a leadership gift by Lawrence G. Foster, a distinguished Penn State alumnus and retired corporate vice president for public relations at Johnson & Johnson.
The Center seeks to foster a modern understanding and application of the Page Principles and the business philosophy of Robert Wood Johnson II by supporting innovative research, educational or public service projects in a wide variety of academic disciplines and professional fields.