CSR: From the inside out

Companies are finding that CSR is best promoted in co-ordination with internal comms, says Peter Crush

Barclays external comms officer for CSR Michael O'Toole sits just yards away from his colleagues in internal communications. It is a quirk of office geography that means the two groups (mostly focused on their respective audiences) often overhear conversations about topics that could benefit both.

One such occurrence last summer led to a collaboration between O'Toole and Barclays' internal magazine, The Globe, to promote the bank's commitment to green space in urban areas.

At its Canary Wharf headquarters Barclays created a 'green roof' – a grass-covered, roof-top garden for staff, 160 metres above the ground.

O'Toole was photographed on the grass for the cover of the magazine, and articles detailed how staff could make use of the roof. O'Toole then drummed up external interest from The Guardian and BBC1's Countryfile.

'Co-ordination between internal and external comms was as seamless as it could have been,' says O'Toole. 'I'm conscious that much as I am looking to maximise PR externally, internal audiences are just as much my stakeholders.

'Although [the green roof] began as an external story,'he adds, 'it became a crucial part of our internal comms work. Wherever possible we want staff to know about our CSR first.'

Internal evidence
Sharing CSR initiatives with staff before promoting them to the press is, say some observers, often overlooked. Recent research by Business in the Community found that only 45 per cent of employees believe their organisation lives by the values it promotes externally.

Another survey, by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), concluded that CSR will only work as a successful PR exercise if observers recognise its acceptance internally.

'Pushing CSR for external consumption is not enough,' argues CIPD employee relations adviser Mike Emmott. 'CSR must begin by getting the relationship with employees right.'

However, while few would dispute these findings, positioning CSR
internally is not something that outward-looking PROs have traditionally wanted to do.

If the Barclays example is to be more widely adopted, movement must happen in two directions. PROs responsible for external comms must be more inward-looking, while internal comms practitioners must be more self-aware – because their work could be newsworthy in the outside world.

This is the view of Lee Smith, former head of regional comms at Ernst & Young, who now sits as a committee member on the Internal Communication Alliance – the CIPR's strategic forum for internal comms practitioners.

'The common ground in all of this is  employee engagement,' he says. 'The concern is that internal comms as a discipline is still structured as a separate function in the business, often not linked to external communications.

Internal comms often involves the HR department – and the disciplines of PR and HR are not seen as natural bedfellows.'

According to Lee, CSR activity suffers from being promoted externally before employees have had the chance to engage with it – something that has given CSR a rather tarnished public image. Proof of this was evident at the recent ICCO Summit in Prague (PRWeek, 11 November 2005), where Fran Morrison, head of communication at British American Tobacco (BAT), explained how the company's CSR initiatives have led to a media backlash.

Although BAT has battled hard to embed its CSR policy as a core business principle, journalists' reactions have so far been overwhelmingly negative. 'We suffer from out-and-out demonisation,' she said. 'One journalist said tobacco producers were terrorists.'

Lee argues that internal comms professionals are the natural promoters of CSR, and there should be strong dialogue between these executives and external PR teams. 'PROs should be made aware of external message opportunities that can be developed from HR initiatives that get staff involved in community projects,' Lee says.

Harmonised comms
Getting external and employee comms teams to co-ordinate their
efforts will be difficult. So it makes sense for PROs to wait until there are real employee-based CSR stories to promote externally.
However, as O'Toole admits, the reality of his day job means it is not always possible for PROs to wait until every employee knows about a CSR initiative: 'If The Guardian had phoned me because it wanted to run a photo story on the green roof before the internal magazine came out, I'd have agreed straight away.'

'There is a tension,' argues John Drummond, chief executive of CSR specialist agency Corporate Culture. 'In a progressive company, the PR department will understand that employees are advocates and that word of mouth is down to the employer-employee relationship. But this is the exception. At the moment, the PR function is inadequately structured for raising CSR awareness internally.

'Most CSR news is tactical opportunism; it is short term, rather than long term and strategic. CSR should be about defining organisational purpose, where the prerequisite is talking to employees before anyone else.'

While this may be a pessimistic view, some PROs are trying to better align themselves to what is going on internally. ExxonMobil comms manager Delia Ponting oversees external comms but also meets regularly with internal communicators. She cites the company's 'Day of Caring' project, publicised internally by the HR team. Although promotion of the scheme – in which staff donated their time to charitable work – was originally just aimed at staff, Ponting wanted to garner local media interest.

'Cameras were given to staff to record their day for the intranet, but once the footage came in we really thought we could make more of it,' she says. 'Because the events were not run simultaneously, we decided to invite local newspapers and TV along to record the remaining projects.'

Ponting claims this 'soft' approach to promoting the initiative – rather than aggressive media targeting – meant local journalists were more accepting of the CSR angle.

It might not be extraordinary for an oil firm to publicise projects more usually destined for the company intranet. However, Ponting insists that 'Day of Caring' is an example of ExxonMobil taking genuine interest in CSR. She says that while primarily an internal staff motivation exercise, it had external application with real impact when promoted by the PR team.

'Look-inside' model
Dr Ralph Tench, principal lecturer of the School of Marketing and PR at Leeds Metropolitan University, is currently researching journalists' views on CSR for a study commissioned by Connectpoint PR in partnership with Business in the Community and the CIPR North West region.

He believes more companies should follow this 'look inside' model. 'At the moment, journalists are interested in companies that seem to have contradictions between the internal and external,' he says. 'The only way to avoid this is to promote CSR stories that have already been promoted internally.'

PR agencies that specialise in internal comms can act as the liaison
between the external and employee communicators in a company.
Edelman spin-off First & 42nd is one such agency, whose clients include Orange. 'Part of the reason we spun off from Edelman was to provide impartial advice to clients on just this issue,' says managing director Peter de Graaf. 'Our message is that there is nothing wrong with PROs making capital from CSR, as long as it is seen to be something that they have discovered from within.

'We often tell clients that PROs have an even more integrated role to play here because it is not just consumers who see these stories. Employees also see the initiatives in the press, something that will often achieve a double dose of staff satisfaction.'

For Orange, First & 42nd is building an internal system through which staff can offer their suggestions on how the company could be more ethically minded. 'The PR department is not allowed into the system just yet, but PROs will be able to extrapolate information for the annual CSR report – such as how many staff enquiries have been answered via the system,' says de Graaf.

'This is Orange's way of involving its external communications with internal messages, giving leads to the external comms team,' he adds. External recognition for what companies do internally is beginning to win favour with the higher management, and that can only help to better promote a company's CSR policies.'

Orange, like many other firms, communicates its internal messages
through its staff magazine, the production of which allows PROs and HR/internal comms staff to share information.

Redhouse Lane Communications  produces nearly 40 magazines for a range of clients including Heathrow Terminal 5, The Department of Health, The Highways Agency, Vodafone, Barclays and ExxonMobil.

It has a team of journalists who go onsite to gather stories, and work closely with internal communications officers who can then flag up a story to PROs that could gain exposure in national media.

Redhouse Lane director Richard Lomax says: 'In many companies,
internal communications had been recaptured from PROs as an HR function, but now it is being recognised as an important discipline in its own right. When we work with clients' internal comms/HR practitioners, we try to help them understand how company morale can be boosted if press releases can coincide with announcements in the staff magazine.'

He adds that clients used to be worried about stories in the staff magazine being picked up by the national press. But now they are much more appreciative that their CSR messages will reach the outside world, so it makes sense to allow the in-house team to shape the campaign.

Staff priority
This is a tactic online movie rental company Homechoice has also adopted. Last year it drew up an internal document called 'Wise Watch' as part of its strategy to be more focused on staff needs. It detailed how staff could ensure their children were not downloading unsuitable films, explained how film ratings and security PINs work, and gave general safety tips.

The document also highlighted its partnership with charity CoreKids and, as Homechoice corporate comms manager Becky Mottershead explains, it was designed as an internal document, but promoted to the media by Fuse PR.

'We're not unusual in having a separate internal comms team and PR team – in this case an agency. Fuse is in regular dialogue to give us external mention of work we are doing as an employer of choice.'

Coverage of Wise Watch has so far appeared on online news portals
Interactive TV Today and Digital Spy and as far afield as KidScreen magazine in Canada. Homechoice also secured coverage in the national press and women's mid-market magazines as The Times, The Sun, Media Guardian, The Scotsman and Real and Best magazines all ran parental control features over the holiday period.

Like ExxonMobil's Ponting, Mottershead says CSR policy has been
designed from an internal communications standpoint first, but where appropriate has been promoted to journalists keen to speak to companies that practice what they preach.

One recent Homechoice initiative was its 'Reindeer Rodeo', in which
senior staff rode simulated bucking reindeer to raise money for charity. Mottershead says she will liaise with the press team in a bid to generate local media coverage. Although the thought of mobilising internal stakeholders first might sound onerous, academics say it is a concept that PROs will have to accept.

'Major companies that are looking to improve their CSR are driving
this internally, and PR departments will need to see how it affects them,' says Leeds Metropolitan University senior lecturer, public relations, Dr Ryan Bowd.

He has just visited Astra Zeneca as part of his own research into how large corporations are handling CSR initiatives internally and externally. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical company is conducting its own study into how it can improve its cross-departmental comms.

'Internal communicators need to hold onto CSR exclusively, but they need to link themselves causally with the PR department to avoid disjointed messages,' Bowd says.

Big impact?
One internal comms chief claims greater liaison between internal and external teams for the promotion of CSR will affect him so much that there should be a trade body concerned with the trend – one that could work alongside the Internal Communication Alliance and other bodies such as the British Association of Communicators in Business. 'My vision is for an "Institute of Employee Communications",' says Royal Bank of Scotland head of internal communications (corporate banking and financial markets) Keith Bottomley.

'Gone is the day when you could just be a comms manager – you need to be in charge of a vision of where the company is going,' he adds.

Organisations keen to overcome media scepticism around CSR might find that the best practice begins at home.

Case Study: diageo
Diageo GB head of social responsibility Kate Blackely says external promotion of CSR has to be based on PROs being in tune with many other departments in the company.

'There can be a tendency for CSR to be pigeonholed in HR and internal communications without any link-up with the PR team. This doesn't work,' she explains. 'We understand that CSR is primarily about internal communications. When the whole company is up to speed on initiatives, promotion of CSR is more effective –
and it rings true.'

Articles promoting responsible drinking and steps taken by Diageo appear regularly in its monthly staff magazine, Mojo.

A recent article concerned a project (pictured) to spread awareness of responsible drinking to 50 UK universities. Next year a campaign by creative agency Craik Jones and PR consultancy Cohn & Wolfe will promote the initiative to media.

'This is a tangible way of telling our staff that we take sensible drinking seriously, but it is also a wider story that could be promoted outside the company to the local media,' Blackely adds.

Case study: BT
Harrison Cowley associate director Justin McKeown says its approach to promoting BT's CSR policies was influenced by the lack of focus it perceived at the heart of the telecoms group's staff relations. 'In the late 1990s, BT's CSR reached a peak and stagnated. Activities
such as charity swims had no real relevance to the company, and certainly had no resonance internally.

We came to the conclusion that any CSR stories put out to the media had to reflect the culture within BT. In a sense, internal awareness became just as important as external awareness.'

A review resulted in the development of BT's 'Am I listening?' campaigns in 2002 – the first of which saw the firm adopt ChildLine as its official charity. Not only did this fit better from a historical standpoint (BT donated switchboards and phones to ChildLine when it was launched in 1986), the promotion of phone-based communication had greater relevance than swimming.

Co-ordinated comms
According to McKeown, internal communications – which has included encouraging staff to volunteer for ChildLine, and recruitment for a sponsored trek to the Himalayas – has become more structured.

Promotion of projects begins with internal magazine BT Today, emails and the intranet, which gets 11 million page impressions a month. Projects are then discussed in regular meetings between Harrison Cowley, BT head of charity programmes Beth Courtier and its press team.

'The decision making process about which internal projects we can take to the media is very much in the charity team's hands,' says McKeown. 'In the past 18 months, for example, we have seen a big internal drive for more ChildLine volunteers, but so far it's not something we want to push externally.'

Occasionally, schemes are promoted externally before being presented to staff. This was the case when BT auctioned mobile phone handsets decorated by celebrities including JK Rowling (pictured). News stories were needed to get the celebrities involved in the first place. However, internal and external teams are usually
co-ordinated to ensure the timing of news is the same to both external and internal audiences.

For example, when a piece of BT direct mail pledged that the company would donate £1 to ChildLine for every response to a customer survey, it was an important announcement to both staff and the public. 'We released the fact that we gave £1.3m to the charity, while staff received an email from [ChildLine founder] Esther Rantzen thanking them for their personal work, and an article by her was published in BT Today,' says McKeown.

He adds: ' The internal audience must be listened to for driving wider CSR communication.'

Identifying the 'employer brand'
Simon Barrow, founder of management consultancy People in Business and author of new book The Employer Brand, says organisations have 12  ingredients that make up the 'employer brand' – and CSR policy is the one on which PROs should focus.

'Research we recently conducted with a financial services company asked whether employees believed that the company was operating to the highest standards it possibly could,' he says. 'The replies showed that staff recognised the difference between the external positioning of their company and the true picture internally.

'PROs have a role to play to ensure the internal and external brand are the same, otherwise the PR they pursue may backfire.'

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.