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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Should the Corporate Responsibility Officer be an Ombudsman?

I have written in the past on the role of the Corporate Responsibility Officer. I recently noticed an interesting comparison point in the role of the newspaper Ombudsman.

It has been a difficult few weeks for The Washington Post with the recent disclosure in of the publication’s plan to sell sponsorship of off-the-record salons. In a recent opinion piece, Andrew Alexander, Ombudsman of The Washington Post calls the plan “an ethical lapse of monumental proportion”. And they pay him to say that about them!

According to the Post’s description of the role “As The Washington Post ombudsman, he serves as its internal critic and represents readers who have concerns or complaints on a wide range of topics including accuracy, fairness, ethics and the newsgathering process. In his role, he also promotes public understanding of the newspaper, its Web site and journalism more generally. He operates under a contract with The Washington Post that guarantees him independence.”

The Organization of News Ombudsman (ONO) description of the role also includes both complaint handling and to ‘write regular columns that deal with issues of broad public interest’. Regarding independence The ONO’s website also states, “A few are on fixed-term, non cancelable contracts.”

It seems to me that the ombudsman role is characterized by a level of independence, a primary responsibility to be a representative of the organizations stakeholders and leverage through having an external voice.

I think for those of us in corporate responsibility it is interesting to consider to what extent our role should contain components of the role of a news ombudsman. I am not sure many companies would pay for someone to be vocally critical of them outside the organization - maybe it has applicability in the media sector that it doesn’t have in other sectors. But I think that enlightened businesses do benefit from an open culture that encourages open constructive criticism, internally if not externally, and the CR folks should be taking a lead by taking that on as a part of their role.


  1. The Corporate Responsibility Officer is not unlike the Organizational Ombudsman, of which there are many (600+/-) in corporations (Amex, Chevron, Mars, Mckinsey), universities (Harvard, Stanford, Texas system, etc.), government agencies (NIH, SecServ, FBI, etc.) international organizations (UN, WBG, IMF, etc.).
    These office have four key attributes, confidentiality, independence, neutrality and informality. ROIs for these functions go as high as 21 dollars returned for every dollar invested. They are pragmatic, beneficial, and provide early warnings, reputational/brand protection, and lower legal costs and informal disputing costs significantly.

    The question really isn't should CROs be like News Ombuds, but why aren't CROs and Organizational Ombuds working together to embed themselves in every organization of consequence?

  2. John, thanks for these insights.

    What I find especially interesting about the News Ombudsman is that component of the role that enables criticism of the very organization they work for.

    I agree that Organizational Ombuds and CROs should be working closely together. Is there an organisation that represents the OO profession ?

  3. The International Ombudsman Association is the professional entity for Organizational Ombuds. Its website is: In the public area you can find the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, conferences and professional development, and peer-reviewed journal. My blog also has a directory of organizations with Ombuds offices.

  4. There are also private providers who can supply targeted and timely service to organizations interested in developing an professional OO program.

    IOA does a solid job as an association and provides significant and valuable educational opportunities. As a volunteer group though they can not necessarily provide the needed degree of involvement to help an interested organization overcome challenges to establishing an exceptional and valuable Organizational Ombudsman Office. The ROIs on OOs have been measured (by me) as high as 21 dollars retuned for every dollar invested. This is a sound investment for any organization.

    Curious, are CROs being queried about economic benefit or organization benefit they generate in the current economic environement

  5. John, as corporate responsibility has evolved in recent years, understanding and quantifying the economic impact on the business has become a key part of the role. I think the environmental sustainability issues have gained particular prominence in this context because they are easier to quantify and align well with ROI objectives.