Enlightened self-interest

A long time ago, in a career galaxy far, far away, I was Director of Public Affairs for The Portman Group (TPG).

At the time (1992-1995), TPG was a world-leading social aspects organisation for the UK drinks industry. Promoting sensible drinking, reducing alcohol-related harm, and tackling alcohol misuse. I can’t remember the order we listed these three objectives, but these were our clear and consistent tenets; the mantra of enlightened self-interest.

That’s what we were set up to do. And led by the late and very mediable Dr John Rae – former head of Westminster, the Anthony Seldon of his day – the organization was rather more morally purposeful than many in the WHO and Department of Health suspected. Including many of the booze barons who poured £2m a year into its coffers.

In the wake of the Guinness scandal, the UK drinks industry led the world in baking “CSR” into its day-to-day ways of working – long before that three-letter acronym pervaded modern-day business. Thanks to those senior Guinness executives who managed to avoid Ford and Grendon Underwood, the barons discovered “doing well by doing good” long before innocent was even thought of.

This backdrop naturally primed me – even 19 years on – to be intrigued by the decision of C&C, the owner of cider gods Magners and Blackthorn, to resign from the modern-day Portman Group because it had “forgotten its founding principles”. Thanks to The Drum for bringing the story to our notice.

Now I doubt many of those in charge of C&C were around – at C&C or in the industry – at the time Rae et al. launched TPG on the world. But their challenge and charge is interesting and worthy of consideration.

I’m clearly years and miles from both TPG’s principles today and the influence that the “large multinational drinks companies” have over its strategy. Nearly 20 years. But I’ve got sympathy for both the Group and C&C; for both of their positions.

But what I do know is that the industry was and is smart to get engaged in the harm that the inappropriate use of its products causes on society, and to be part of the solution not just part of the problem. And that burying the commercial hatchet and putting commercial self-interest behind The Good set the bar high for the drinks and many other sectors.

It’s a shame to see TPG and its members tearing itself apart. Perhaps this will be a wake-up call to a slumbering giant.