When agency execs snipe about a rival's offering, they often comment, "They're very good at packaging what they do. The implication, of course, is that it's more about giving their service a clever name than it is about substance or, as Shakespeare coined it, that "all that glisters is not gold."
Such a reaction is understandable. In an industry so often characterized as being about spin, not substance, it's only natural that industry leaders should be wary of jargon or too-neatly-packaged services.
For similar reasons, some agency chiefs have avoided creating a corporate social responsibility (CSR) practice, and very few corporate comms chiefs have appointed CSR officers. Their argument is that CSR is a fad - a trendy name for a number of issues on which they're already working.
One global agency chief put it this way: "What have we been doing for our clients for years? We've been listening to the different stakeholder groups, from investors to employees to protesters, and then explaining to the client how it needs to change in response to them if it is to maintain or improve its reputation and, inevitably, its financial status. How is that any different to this thing that people are now calling 'CSR'? If you have to give it a name, it is corporate affairs or issues management."
Some corporations feel similarly. Echo Research recently conducted a study on CSR, and a frequent response heard from corporations was that CSR "either lies in the corporate DNA, or it doesn't."
But the increasing understanding of, and interest in, social responsibility will surely push more agency chiefs to package an offering under the CSR banner, while corporate communications chiefs must consider anointing a CSR officer.
If they're in any doubt, it'd be worth reading the results of Echo's study. The survey found media reports covering CSR increased 52% from 2000 to 2001. It also found a general belief among comms chiefs that 9/11 had placed a greatly increased emphasis on corporations to demonstrate a socially responsible attitude toward the world around them.
The survey also found that coverage of ethical investment was up 92%.
This is a huge potential driver for CSR, offering a solution to what is sometimes perceived as the conflict of interest between the long-term development of a company and the need to deliver short-term gains to shareholders.
This survey was followed just last week by Hill & Knowlton's annual Corporate Reputation Watch, in which 66% of the 600 top corporate executives interviewed recognized the significant part social responsibility plays in their companies' reputation.
More important still was the stance taken by Institutional Shareholder Services and the California Public Employee Retirement System, prior to ExxonMobil's recent shareholder meeting. Their backing of a resolution asking the company to develop a plan for renewable energy earned the support of 25% of all shareholders. In money terms, that was a $68 billion vote for change from shareholders who realize ExxonMobil's behavior will impact its ability to deliver profits for them.
If that doesn't spark a few more serious entrants to the CSR scene, what will? Fancy fads and phrases might seem dangerous routes for PR to take, but CSR is really just a redefinition of good corporate communications, and it would be a shame if business went elsewhere simply because the industry's package didn't look quite right.