Those who need proof that corporate social responsibility is impacting business and business coverage needn't look further than Fortune's recent list of America's most admired companies.
"This is the 25th anniversary of Fortune's list. When it was first doing it, when they mentioned green, it was all about money," notes George Medici, VP of national media relations at Porter Novelli. "[CSR] wasn't in the mix then, but now it's a huge part."
Much of the credit for this movement among companies to be seen as socially responsible goes not so much to the media, but to consumers who increasingly factor how socially responsible a company is into purchasing decisions.
"It's now very much the mainstream who is socially aware," says Max Schorr, publisher/founding editor of the recently launched magazine Good. Schorr adds that this audience is surprisingly savvy in its understanding of CSR, meaning PR pros and journalists needn't oversimplify complex issues like cap-and-trade schemes for greenhouse gas emissions in order to connect with them.
Over the past year, the media have responded to this trend by committing more resources to CSR. But outside of magazines like Good, vertical titles like The CRO (corporate responsibility officer), and a few dedicated CSR reporters like Fortune's Mark Gunther, most coverage is built into traditional business beats.
"You see it bubble over off the business page with a few companies like Starbucks or Timberland," explains Nick Ragone, SVP and director of the New York communications media strategy network at Ketchum. "But for the most part, you need to focus on your client's beat reporter and explain how your client's CSR platforms get interwoven into their fundamental business."
But whether it's environmental causes or company efforts to combat third-world health and poverty issues, Chris Deri, EVP and global head of Edelman's CSR and sustainability practice, stresses that just because CSR is hot does not make it an easy pitch.
"There's still a disconnect in that when a reporter hears a company say it's doing this because it's socially responsible, a switch goes off in their head that they're about to hear a paid ad," he says.
The key to combating that skepticism is transparency, says Michael Connor, former editor of The CRO who next month will relaunch the former print title Business Ethics as a Web-based outlet. "PR pros should avoid the temptation to toward excessive spin - don't over-promise, don't over-sell, and try to be as accurate and forthright as you can," he says.
PITCHING... CSR initiatives
There's almost a CSR overload out there now, so make sure what your client is doing is substantial, new, or exciting
Making lists like those in Fortune or Business Ethics provides long-term benefit, but keep in mind these entail rigorous evaluations, so don't push a client unless it really has the CSR goods
Look for academics or watchdog groups to provide third-party validation of your client's CSR initiatives