CSR efforts need to be more than a marketing opportunity

Business' role in society has shifted - the result of increased public expectations and a litany of social and environmental issues.

Business' role in society has shifted – the result of increased public expectations and a litany of social and environmental issues. Over the past year, the economic crisis has also dramatically altered US consumers' beliefs on how, where, and why business should engage in CSR activities. This shift has serious implications for businesses and business communicators.

According to a recent Waggener Edstrom/RT Strategies poll, 86% of US consumers feel it is not only possible, but necessary for profitable businesses to play a role in addressing social issues. However, almost half of those consumers say their first impression of a business touting its social engagement efforts is “just about marketing,” or that it takes a company away from its primary business focus.

Expectations are extremely high, but so is the level of skepticism and mistrust of business. This dynamic represents a challenge for us as the stewards of corporate reputation and the communicators of corporate engagement on social issues. There is also serious risk if those efforts are poorly designed or poorly communicated.

Businesses have a responsibility to engage on social issues, but consumers are specific about their expectations for those engagements. Consumers want businesses to focus on what they're best at: business. They expect companies to be run at a profit and they expect them to do it responsibly. They want social efforts to fall within the context of a company's business strategy and mission. They want business to bring its strengths – nimbleness, a focus on results, and the ability to innovate new ideas and approaches – to bear on social and environmental issues. However, they want those strengths delivered in a way that nets returns and social benefit.

Communicators can help clients tell their stories in ways that resonate and drive results. It's vital to engage stakeholders, consumers, and employees, and demonstrate that initiatives are true to the culture of a business and are supported internally and externally.

Efforts that are conceived as marketing programs – or communicated as such – won't drive the desired impact. In fact, they run the risk of damaging corporate reputation.

Today's environment demands authentic, effective communications, putting business efforts in the context of business strategy and social impact. Companies that realize this will set the standard and define the actions of others.

Matt Reid is EVP of WE Social Innovation at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.

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