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COMMUNICATING CSR: WHAT PR PROFESSIONALS SHOULD KNOW

Since Howard Bowen published his book, The Social Responsibilities of Businessmen in 1953, Corporate Social Responsibility, the central idea of the book, has become a global phenomenon, determining how decisions are made in the governing boards of companies both big and small. As researches are revealing that businesses who employ socially responsible practices are reaping benefits ranging from enhanced reputation to attraction and retention of customers and several other benefits in between, businesses are jumping on the bandwagon, but only a few are really reaping the benefits. Most PR and Communication professionals whose responsibility it is to communicate the CSR efforts of their organizations in a way that brings these benefits do not seem to know what to communicate and how to communicate. It takes only those who understand CSR, its associated issues and the challenges of CSR Communication to succeed.

What Is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Howard Bowen defined Corporate Social responsibility or CSR for short as “the obligation of businessmen to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of society”.

This definition has remained relevant, even when the concept has been expanded by scholars over the years. Surprisingly, evolving CSR ideas and concepts such as corporate citizenship, sustainability, corporate social responsiveness and triple bottom lines are all embedded n the definition. These new ideas all point to one thing: the values of society, which the definition emphasizes.

Corporate citizenship sees organizations as individual citizens of a country who have to pay taxes, comply with the laws and regulation of the land, contribute to economic development, act in the best interest of its stakeholders and contribute to the development of the community where it operates. And sustainability is about “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their needs”. Corporate social responsiveness emphasizes the need for organizations to identify and work to address social issues and John Elkington’s Triple Bottom-line is about measurement of an organization’s corporate social responsibility using three criteria: profit (economic consideration), people (stakeholder consideration) and place (environmental consideration).

Perhaps, it is for giving such an evergreen definition that Howard Bowen is adjudged by many scholars as the father of corporate social responsibility.

What Does CSR Entail?

Archie Carrol believes that CSR encompasses philanthropic, ethical, legal and economic responsibilities. She captures it in a pyramid thus:

THE PYRAMID OF CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

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Source: Business and Society: Ethics and Stakeholders Management by Archie B. Carrol and Ann K. Buchholtz

Carrol’s pyramid is a very practical approach to corporate social responsibility. It captures the different themes and aspects of the concept. Its practicality can be seen in its declaration of economic responsibility as the foundation for other responsibilities.

CSR Communication Defined

In an article titled, Communicating Corporate Social Responsibility, published in Journal of marketing Communication, Klement Podnar defined CSR Communication as “a process of anticipating stakeholder expectations, articulation of corporate social responsibility policy and managing of different communication tools designed to provide true and transparent information about a company or a brand’s integration of its business operations, social and environmental concerns, and interaction with stakeholders.”

As hard as it has been to construct a generally accepted definition for CSR Communication, this definition is a laudable attempt. Simply put, CSR communication refers to all forms of interaction with stakeholders an organization engages in to let them know the good works it has done in an effort to improve and add to the advancement of society.

Effective communication is central to the success of an organization’s CSR efforts. It is crucial for engaging stakeholders in order to feel their pulse about a CSR initiative. Without communication CSR efforts are doomed to fail.

Challenges Of CSR Communication

CSR communication is difficult. Most stakeholders, who are targets of such communication, are largely skeptical of such messages. This skepticism is not limited to a group of stakeholders; even highly influential persons are involved. Take the case of Deborah Doane, a writer and campaigner on CSR and global sustainability, in an article titled, The Myth of CSR, and published in Stanford Social Innovation Review, she concluded that CSR is a placebo, lulling us into a false sense of security and called for legislative measures in order regulate business behaviour.

Another great challenge to CSR communication is what scholars have termed communication paradox: the fact that when an organization says less about its CSR efforts, stakeholders tend to believe it is doing nothing; and when it says more, it is viewed as aggressive and bragging. Knowing how much communication is enough becomes difficult to gauge.

High and constantly changing expectations of stakeholders also presents a challenge. Monitoring and tracking the different stakeholders’ expectations before determining the messages that will go down well with them is a very complex task.

Can these challenges be overcome? The answer is: yes. All you need is the right knowledge, the right skills and the right attitudes.

What PR Professionals Should Know?

Knowledge bears the torch of discovery and holds the magic that makes difficult endeavours easy. Here is what PR professionals should know in order to make CSR communications successful.

  • An inside-out approach is always the best approach. Employees are the main advocates for any organization. It makes sense to ensure they are the first to know about CSR initiatives an organization is about to launch. Their participation at the planning stage is important.
  • In CSR communication, facts are sacred. Embellishments and bragging feed skepticism, and inaccurate data and green washing damages trust.
  • Cultural context is crucial to effective CSR communication. It helps you determine CSR priorities and programmes. Monitoring and tracking evolving stakeholders’ values and priorities help you describe CSR projects in a way that resonates with them.
  • Each stakeholder group expects a different message. Adapt your messages and channels to suit the needs of each group.
  • Understanding CSR issues is crucial to effective CSR communication. ISO 26000 has established seven core areas from where most CSR issues emanate, namely: (i) Organizational governance (ii) Community involvement and development (iii) Human right (iv) Labour practices (v) The environment (vi) Fair operating practices and (vii) consumer issues.

Use this as your guide to track issues. CSR issues mapping is essential for narrowing down and focusing on issues of priority to your organization’s stakeholders.

  • Focusing on the positives makes your organization too good to be true. Talking about your mistakes and failures, and how they have presented opportunities for improvement, shows your authenticity and enhances trust.
  • Consistency in behavior and messages is important. Having a code of conducts with a clear set of values that guide all actions and CSR initiatives can foster consistency of messages and actions.  Today stakeholders expect organizations to have character, stand for something that can be traced back to the roots of an organization.

CSR communication may be complex and fraught with challenges. But when you know what to communicate and how, the job becomes easy. Remember, it’s possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skills” so said Wilbur Wright.