Corporate social responsibility grows up

I worry about my kids a lot. Likewise, after working in the area of corporate social responsibility for some years, I sometimes worry about its coming of age.

I worry about my kids a lot. My teenage sons tell me I do. Likewise, after working in the area of corporate social responsibility for some years, I sometimes worry about its coming of age.

When you think about it, suggesting CSR has barely reached adolescence is not a stretch. The term first coined in the 1950s didn't get much attention in corporate corridors until the 80s. But CSR didn't become the buzz word that it is until the last decade – Google CSR and you get 42 million matches, so it's hardly suffering from inattention. What worries me, though, is that you would hope CSR is well on its way to forming a strong identity by now, but use of the term and related communications can be as all over the place as a 17-year old on a Saturday night. 

Problems stem from the fact that CSR has become a catch-all for so many worthy, though different, things. Heading the list are sustainable manufacturing practices, environmental initiatives, charitable giving, diversity, and labor practices, and some would throw in cause-related marketing, too. Alas, while companies struggle to define CSR and identify cross-functional stakeholders, how could they have anything but a hard time explaining all this to the world around?

Currently, the language around CSR and ways of communicating can fall flat. CSR consists of corporate enterprises truly aimed at benefitting the public, the planet, and society, but does the corporate dialogue suffer from being a little too inwardly focused and less on the public? Go to the CSR websites of many companies, and you will find these sites looking exceedingly dry. This is not true for all companies, but most.

Undeniably, CSR is complex, knotty and deeply entwined in issues of corporate conscience and obligation, reputation, and bottom lines. Yet, I wonder if there's a risk of the whole discussion being a little too thick and self-important losing some people along the way. Questions like “How are we talking about it? “What are we doing to engage consumers in it?” “If CSR was a political candidate, what kind of charisma would it have?” shouldn't be ignored.

A client said to me on the phone this week that CSR at his company needs to go well beyond matters of corporate reputation by touching the hearts of consumers.

He said demonstrating value in this way is what it will take for executive leadership to fully empower CSR. In this regard, I imagine his company may be like many others.

One thing I don't worry about is CSR's longevity. Nothing is likely to take the wind out of its sails anytime soon. Investment is up and stakeholder expectations are much too high. But adolescents need clarity as well as the right words sometimes to invigorate them. And as corporate CSR strategies evolve, we need to evolve the storytelling so socially responsible companies get the recognition they deserve.  

Cliff Berman is EVP and director of consumer marketing at Ruder Finn.

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