Recent press coverage of corporate social responsibility (CSR) shows journalists are as interested in the comms strategy behind an activity as they are in the activity itself. When The Co-operative Insurance Society launched what it claimed to be the first 'ethical engagement policy' in June, reporters wrote as much on how it was presented to the press and its development - by canvassing public opinion on its commitments in areas including social inclusion and environmental sustainability - as they did on the plain facts of what the policy involved.
This consultation process undoubtedly played a role in gaining a hard-to-get seal of approval from an often cynical press - for what was effectively a CSR PR announcement. Yet, as if to underline the importance of good CSR presentation to the press, just days later Business in the Community published its contribution to the reporting debate: a new guide for directors, covering subjects such as 'what to report' and 'how to demonstrate credibility' in CSR reports.
The Co-operative Insurance Society could well be a finalist in next year's Clarion Awards - the annual event put on by the International Visual Communications Association (IVCA) - which reward best practice in the communication of CSR.This year's winners, named at the event last week, included John Lewis, The Metropolitan Police and Floella Benjamin (PRWeek, 9 September).
'At a time when CSR reporting can be seen as spin, the Clarion Awards recognise the best practice of comms directors in communicating CSR - be it internally to their staff, across borders or to consumers,' says IVCA chief executive Wayne Drew.
Befitting their aim of rewarding substance over style, the awards do not always look at the most overtly PR-ed projects. They favour initiatives that have discretely promoted their CSR credentials. Here the firms involved have made communicating all aspects of CSR a bedrock of their business rather than treating community schemes as one-off PR stunts. Some companies have to be persuaded to enter in the first place.
'Awards like these are hugely important for putting the skill of communicating CSR into the mainstream,' says Clarion judge and Weber Shandwick head of CSR Brendan May. 'Companies have a right to communicate CSR because it provides a new angle on what they are doing. But more than that, I think they also have a responsibility to talk about their CSR because it shows they are aligning themselves to consumer concerns.'
Beyond the marketing
According to May, any company with a specific CSR department is already making CSR a silo, which is why the PR department must take control of it - although not to merely produce crude press releases without substance. It is a philosophy shared by Ian Wood, vice-president of sustainable development and community relations at mining company BHP Billiton. Wood, a winner of a Business in the Community 'Impact on Society Award', says: 'If you try too hard to tell the world how good you are, the public won't believe you.
'Receiving external recognition has better PR value because someone else is able to make a judgement of your CSR policies without you having to shout about them. The crux is to let your CSR performance speak for itself. All too often in CSR comms there is a risk of the rhetoric getting ahead of performance.'
PRWeek looks at the comms strategies for four winners of the 2005 Clarion Awards (see centre).
CLARION AWARD WINNERS
MCDONALD'S UK - WINNER: NEW HORIZONS AWARD
McDonald's has borne the brunt of the obesity debate, as well as parallel concerns that the nation is eating too much salt and fat and not taking enough exercise.
The fast-food mammoth has been forced to change its ways, which has involved training staff on changes to the nutritional content of its food as well as promoting new menus to customers. 'Changing our menu and communicating this change was a large part of our 2004 activity,' says Nick Hindle, head of corporate affairs.
'Publishing our "Taking Steps" report was the cornerstone of this. It highlighted the fact that customers could swap fries for carrot sticks or have healthier drinks. It also explained to consumers and journalists that in all TV adverts, at least one designated healthy option would be shown.' In-store activity, including the Happy Meal Choice Chart, provided nutritional information, while the company has committed £1m of media spend to campaigns such as school resources telling kids not to eat too much junk food.
'Our group-wide commitment to promoting health means we have improved our own evaluation of the opinion-forming press,' adds Hindle. 'We feel our PR is a much more well-rounded story and this message is getting across. We are getting a far higher amount of neutral and positive media mentions than we did in the past.'
ACCENTURE - WINNER: FILM AND VIDEO
Throughout 2004, the BBC encouraged the public to record their lives on digital media. With equipment and filming expertise provided free by the corporation the results are showcased on its 'Telling Lives' website, as well as BBC1 and The Community Channel.
Films have included everything from 'I love having a boyfriend with a car' to one man's account of being captured in World War II.
To publicise its inclusion and diversity agenda, Accenture agreed to host a week-long digital story-telling workshop. The firm sent an email to every UK-based employee asking them to submit their ideas for a film about them - the ten best submissions were filmed with help from the BBC and broadcast last July on The Community Channel. They depicted family life, religion, disability and identity - areas which represented the diversity of Accenture's employees.
GLAXOSMITHKLINE/THE EDGE PICTURE COMPANY - WINNER: STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS
Research by the Charities Aid Foundation showed that GlaxoSmithKline was the leading corporate donor to charity last year - contributing £338m of the £845m given by the top 500 firms on the London Stock Exchange.
However, GSK has suffered criticism that its donations are fuelled by commercial motivations. These allegations often centre on Africa, where the pharmaceutical giant is developing drugs to treat Aids.
To maintain employee morale in the face of this, GSK made a video with the help of The Edge Picture Company to communicate to staff how its donation programme was a social necessity and a crucial part of the firm's international reputation.
The Edge Picture Company executive producer Pete Stevenson says: 'Employees won't feel good about working for GSK if they hear accusations all the time. This was aimed at arming them for the pub - where people are asked what they do - so staff could feel proud of who they worked for.'
The four-minute video, partly shot in El Salvador, followed a girl in need of medical aid donated by GSK, interspersed with real news reports.
'It galvanises and informs staff, and now forms part of GSK's employee induction pack,' adds Stevenson.
CTN COMMUNICATIONS FOR AVIVA - WINNER: INTERACTIVE MEDIA
Today, anyone who wants to familiarise themselves with Aviva's stance on corporate social responsibility will have to prepare themselves to read 26 pages of commitments and initiatives, most of which is written directly by chairman Pehr Gyllenhammar.
'I see a particular connection between the office of the chairman and CSR,' Gyllenhammar says. 'A chairman is ultimately responsible for how a business conducts itself and CSR is a code of good practice.' His aim is to achieve what he describes as CSR being 'part of Aviva's DNA'. At the start of the year he charged local CEOs to review how well this was being implemented. Aviva's 'Diversity Game' was produced to engage senior managers with the issue of diversity and why it was important for the business.
The interactive 'game' highlights different management scenarios and guides users to the end objective - to appreciate the message of 'strength through diversity'.
Tangible evidence that this has been working comes from Aviva this year being awarded a silver rating by Opportunity Now, the UK group that campaigns for organisations to recognise the contribution of women to the workforce.
It was also ranked 26th in Cranfield's Femail FTSE index, received a Business in the Community certificate for the Race for Opportunity benchmark, and has been ranked as one of the top 100 employers for gay people in the UK.