ANALYSIS: PR's role in CSR grossly undervalued

Research from global PR trade body ICCO has found PROs struggling

to take control of the corporate social responsibility issue, despite

CSR's growing profile and impact on corporate reputation, says Adam

Hill.



At ICCO's global summit in San Francisco last month, the body asked

senior management from PR agencies worldwide to crystalise the nature of

the relationship between PR and corporate social responsibility.



The responses suggest PR's importance in, say, crisis management and as

a 'home for ideas' is well accepted. But overall, they said clients

massively undervalued PR's role in CSR, with the result that PR is not

as integral to the implementation of strategies as it could be.

Influence over CSR, it seems, is as likely to lie with HR departments as

with PROs.



On the setting of group strategy aspects of CSR, more than 40 per cent

of respondents thought it should reside with the office of the CEO,

against less than ten per cent in corporate affairs. This final figure

is barely more than the number who thought it should be part of the HR

brief.



PR is seen as the key function only in communicating about CSR's value.

Not, crucially, in implementation or in attempting to affect major

change.



Jim Surguy, MD of PR agency advisory firm Results Business Consulting,

insists the findings say more about the standing of PR than the

ignorance of client companies: 'CSR should be dealt with at board level.

In many cases, the PR community doesn't have access at that level, to

drive CSR activities.'



Hilary Sutcliffe, head of CSR specialist Shared View, goes further.



Although she concedes media relations is an important facet of CSR, she

believes that too many agencies simply do not understand the area.



'You are not going to hire a PR company to do CSR. Some people see PR as

a barrier to implementing CSR because PR firms can't help but think in

terms of one-way promotional activity. Stakeholder communication is a

two-way process: feeding back, consulting, dialogue,' she says.



In the wake of 11 September, the survey found, more will be expected of

companies in terms of CSR, which will in turn mean clients attach more

importance - and money - to it. But Luther Pendragon issues management

expert Ben Rich suggests that the relative newness of CSR means it has

yet to be challenged as a concept - only a recession would do that.



'The test of CSR will be through those companies which cut back CSR in

recession or those who regard it as a core driver of business. I suspect

there will be a number who just pay lip service to it,' he adds.



The Institute of Social and Ethical Accountability (ISEA) is more upbeat

and focuses on methods for evaluating the efficacy of CSR projects.

Programme manager John Sabapathy points to ISEA's fourth annual Social

Reporting Awards, handed out to companies that demonstrate their

commitment to good corporate citizenship. Although the survey found

awards were seen as the least important measure of CSR success, they are

at least one visible marker.



The research suggests there is a way to go with other methods. Because

CSR embraces a welter of reputation-affecting issues as diverse as

inward investment, environmental impact and staff training, the sector

is nowhere near having the sophisticated measures that assess even half

these things individually.



Amanda Jordan, director of Chime-backed CSR agency The Smart Company,

touches on one of two CSR headaches; first, the range of activities it

covers is bewildering; and second, the make-up of the audience of NGOs

and various opinion-formers that ultimately determine a company's CSR

success is complex.



Significantly, when it comes to the importance of measuring and

evaluating initiatives, most respondents chose stakeholder surveys as

the most important measure, with 51 per cent saying evaluation was 'very

important', and 46 per cent choosing 'quite important'.



'That 46 per cent realised that it is going to be very difficult to

quantify,' Chris McDowall, ICCO secretary-general, suggests.



John Williams, formerly at Fishburn Hedges and now an independent PR

consultant, argues that PR has the potential to play a far more

prominent role than is often believed to be the case: 'CSR must be CEO

or board-led. It's a question of who at the centre provides the support

and encouragement for that. PR isn't the be all and end all but it is

CSR's natural home. One aspect of implementation is that you must

communicate. Because CSR is a combination of managing behaviour and

stakeholder accountability, the criteria are forever changing.'



PROs' involvement is not always welcome, Williams continues: 'A lot of

(companies) still think it's a bit crass to talk about it and that's a

barrier. Some people still associate PR with cheap publicity.'



This will have to change because it is only by publicising CSR

initiatives that organisations can invite the sort of public debate that

will make their activities more meaningful, he argues.



The crucial point is engaging with stakeholders, because firms are

unable to engage with people unless through communication.

Multinationals are more susceptible to influence than traders in the

developing world.



Indeed, according to many of those working in the CSR consultancy

sector' the big mistake of anti-globalisation campaigns, and NGOs, is to

see multinationals as the enemy. They are not, the argument goes - they

are organisations whose policies the campaigners can affect.



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