Today I received a very thoughtful letter from the coordinator for Global Partnerships for Tobacco Control Essential Action. The gist of the letter was this: A conference on corporate responsibility I’m scheduled to speak at in Philadelphia in a couple of weeks also includes a speaker from cigarette-maker Philip Morris. Given that cigarettes kill and given the group’s suspicion that Philip Morris only participates in these kinds of events because they’re a convenient smokescreen (no pun intended) they can hide behind, the letter urged me to insist that conference organizers uninvite Philip Morris and to withdraw my own participation if they refused.
This is a very complex question. While I agree that their position as an official conference speaker sends a mixed message to the world, Philip Morris clearly isn't going to pack up and go out of business. We need to engage with anyone who wants to sit at the table and be part of the discussion to explore new ways to transform their business and its purpose.
That's why I'm suggesting that the format of the event be designed to allow participants to challenge Philip Morris. And – thanks to the challenge from Global Partnerships – when I open the conference with my key note address I will encourage all the attendees of the conference to ask Philip Morris direct and challenging questions about their vision of and commitment to corporate responsibility. Tough but polite. And if they are there for the wrong reasons they’ll thing twice about going again. But if they came to openly and honestly engage about some pretty tough issues who knows what might happen.