CSR: Making a virtue out of Christianity

Easter reminds us that many companies were founded on Christian principles, but how valuable is this message today, asks Maja Pawinska.

Business may be the new religion, but for many firms, religion is what launched that business in the first place. Christian-rooted brands include Cadbury, Friends Provident, Lloyds Bank, Fry's and Rowntree, but while the principles that founded these companies were of their time - many were started by Quakers - today's world can appear very different.

According to the last census, just 18 per cent of the UK public are a practising religious member. Eight million say they have no religion at all. And yet, as Easter approaches, the extent to which the founders' Christian values should manifest themselves in PR terms is still as complex as ever. Big profits are still frowned upon, and mix any Christian values with supposed non-Christian behaviour and the public's moral fibres are easily twitched. So do companies founded on Christian principles now have a PR asset, or a liability?

Cadbury

Ironically, the most well known example is Cadbury, which makes some of its biggest profits at this time of year. Creme Eggs are the UK's biggest confectionery item sold between 1 January and Easter each year.

The company was founded in 1824 by John Cadbury to manufacture drinking chocolate and cocoa, the perfect vehicle for the teetotal Quakers to wean people off alcohol. Concern for the welfare of the workforce established the Bourneville village but last year the firm hit the headlines because, after a one per cent fall in pre-tax profits, it unveiled plans to cut 5,500 jobs to save £400m between 2004 and 2007.

According to UK and Europe media relations manager Tony Bilsborough, Cadbury doesn't like to shout too loudly about its welfare activities, pointing out that it is a commercial business too. 'We are proud of our achievements and philanthropic activities, and our employees have lots of benefits including sports facilities, doctors and dentists on site.

But we are first and foremost a company and we prefer to get on and do, rather than guild the lily by trumpeting it,' he says.

Cadbury's founding principles are seen as a corporate and brand PR asset and are guarded jealously, but while they manifest themselves locally and globally - including a project to build wells in Ghana - they aren't hammered home on every press release.

However, the fact that Friends Provident was founded in 1832 to address social needs appears in the boilerplate of all its press releases. Senior manager of group comms Ashley Taylor says: 'Our Quaker origins underpin our corporate values. They provide the foundation for our socially responsible investment (SRI) market and, more recently, the establishment of the Friends Provident Charitable Foundation. The Quaker principle is used more to underpin our credentials rather than as a focus for a PR campaign.

We will run PR around SRI, and this year is its 21st anniversary, but not specifically on Quaker origins.'

Christian charitable organisations may appear to have an easier task - after all they don't have profits and employer relations to grapple with - however, they have to decide how to communicate their values to a secular audience. The YMCA, for example, a Christian movement founded in 1844, is keen to stress that the services it provides are open to everyone regardless of faith.

Christian foundations

Senior press officer Sarah Birdsall says: 'PR campaigns on issues such as homelessness or lowering the voting age do not necessarily highlight our Christian ethos.

'But, in the knowledge that many of our supporters are Christians, our direct marketing campaigns all include a reference to our Christian basis,' she adds.

The Salvation Army is more overt, because it is a Christian church as well as a charity. This hasn't been an impediment, says national press officer Sarah Miller: 'Only once in recent times has a media outlet decided not to use our view because we're a Christian organisation,' she says.

But she does concede it is occasionally misunderstood: 'The Church has something valid to say on most issues - poverty, education, family welfare, racial equality, and protection of children and young people. But media may presume our stances.'

Christian Aid, founded in 1945 to help refugees after WWII, exemplifies how Christian firms' messages have had to adapt. Today it positions itself as a global organisation tackling poverty and injustice while maintaining strong Christian links. PR manager Tricia O'Rourke says churchgoers and episcopal media are still crucial, but it now targets the national and women's press.

'We don't just give money to Christians as that wouldn't be very Christian,' she says. 'In our current ad campaign, we're saying we promote Christianity, but spend money according to its guiding principles. It can be tough to get that message across.'

O'Rourke says the charity will play up or play down its work with partner churches in press releases about specific campaigns depending on the target media, but points out that a good story is a good story, regardless of whether it's coming from a Christian charity.

But are there actual risks for firms when talking about Christianity?

Marcia Dixon is a former religious editor of The Voice who now runs MD Public Relations to help black Christian groups and individuals with their PR.

She says it depends on the target audience: 'When I promote gospel groups or church organisations, it can be an asset because of the major role the Church plays within the African Caribbean community. But when it comes to businesses I tread more carefully, and will only mention the client's Christian beliefs if it is in their interests to do so.'

Taylor says this is an area that has to be handled with extreme caution: 'There are risks to companies that use their Christian origins too overtly, and it may turn off certain audiences suspicious of mixing religion and business. Some consumers would also see them as cranky.'

Miller agrees: 'People have high expectations of Christian firms and hold them to account for everything they do and say. Talking about Christianity may turn off your audience and part of the media.'

But when ideas on ethics and social welfare are applied to business, these Christian values begin to look awfully similar to corporate social responsibility.

Indeed, it has been said that Cadbury invented CSR about 150 years before everyone else caught up. 'The idea of putting something back, and social responsibility, has always been with us. CSR is a new name for what we consider to be an old ethic,' says Bilsborough.

It seems that in most cases where a charity or a business starts off with a bible in the boardroom, the core values of that particular company handbook linger on in its comms well after the overtly religious founders have been paid their last respects.

PR CAMPAIGNS WITH A CHRISTIAN TONE

Tree of Life

Christian Aid worked with the Council of Mozambique to commission a half-tonne sculpture made of chopped-up guns and other decommissioned weapons from the country's 16-year civil war. The 'Tree of Life' was unveiled at the British Museum in February. Spokesman Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane carried out dozens of media interviews, and the campaign messages highlighted that Christian Aid is an international development charity working with partners to help poor communities irrespective of religion, race or background.

Gambling Bill

The Salvation Army worked with the Methodist Church to highlight the dangers of gambling liberalisation in response to the Gambling Bill. It ran a lobbying and media campaign at all stages of the bill's progress through parliament, and its youth arm ran a postcard campaign asking Secretary of State Tessa Jowell to stop children gambling on fruit machines. Press coverage was extensive, and the intense pressure applied by the campaign contributed to the Government capping the number of casinos to be built in the next five years.

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