The key to CSR is authenticity

Corporate reputation accounts for £790bn of the value of businesses in the FTSE 350, according to the latest UK Reputation Dividend Report. Companies have attempted to boost their public image and harness this value through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – but some, such as ex-BP chief exec Lord Browne, claim it is a diversionary tactic. We ask senior comms practitioners how companies can create and communicate effective CSR campaigns that resonate positively with the public and the wider industry, writes David Keevill.

In a keynote speech at last week’s Advertising Association’s Lead 2016, ex-BP chief exec Lord Browne condemned CSR as the “plaything” of business, adding that it had become the “very dangerous crutch” of companies.

His words follow a year of scrutiny on the projected public image of businesses and their perceived failures, impacting industries from car manufacturing to web search to telecoms. Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2016 shows business enjoying a modest increase in public faith, but is there a genuine corporate desire to do ‘the right thing’?

However, there can be no quick solutions, asserts PR consultant David Banks, and that CSR should be a “constant dialogue a company should do with is public”. He adds: “when companies chuck money at a charity or at a problem, it can have as bad an effect as doing nothing”. So how does a company communicate its CSR model effectively and what goes into creating a sustainable and, ultimately, authentic campaign? We asked a number of comms experts:

Build CSR into the core business model

“Companies need to decide which of the two types of CSR they want to engage in and communicate about”, explains Peter Gilheany, PR director at social change agency Forster Communications. “The first kind is the type rightly being called out by Lord Browne, basically a simple reputational device to deflect attention away from the core practice of a business.

“The second type is the one that is an essential part of that core business practice and is used as a tool of direct influence on it.” Effective CSR, Gilheany argues, comes from taking a long-term view and building it into an organisation’s strategy.

Ben Romney, a partner at Buchanan and the man behind the sustainability report of Saudi based water plant developer ACWA Plant, agrees that good CSR looks beyond just a PR exercise: “ACWA Power’s focus on delivering returns to its shareholders is intertwined with its commitment to CSR. The company needs the local economy to grow in order to fuel long term growth for its own business.”

Create advocates that experience CSR benefits in social outreach

For Romney, CSR is about creating a mutually beneficial environment in which there are clear advantages for both the company and the local people. In the case of ACWA, for example, it has a commitment to creating local jobs with “as much as 95% of their 3000 staff employed locally”.

Effective advocacy has to be tied up with a well-executed comms campaign, explained Steve Carman, a director at Nobull’s CSR unit, Sustainabull: “From sports clubs to SMEs and large companies, many are spending £10,000s in this area and are not even sharing these feel good factor initiatives with their employees, let alone their customers or prospects.”

Effective CSR plays to a company’s strengths

Since 2013, multi-disciplinary business consultancy FTI Consulting has worked with local schools to help students understand the economy, as part of a programme called Boom, Bust & Crunch. FTI’s EMEA comms director, Michael Rosen, sees this work aligning with the company’s core remit in making complex issues clearer. This sort of social work creates authenticity, he explains: “BB&C directly aligns with our business objectives, and uses the core skills of our employees for the wider benefit of our local community and society.”

Understanding where a company’s strengths, and sometimes weaknesses, lie is the best way to communicate trust to the public. Gilheany reflects: “The best way to counter the sceptics is to admit you are not perfect and to show your workings.

“I think companies like Leon and Unilever are very good at this, at crediting external audiences with the intelligence to understand that nobody is perfect and to ask them to engage in the vision and commitment that underpins the attempt to be better.”

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