“Despite centuries-long practices of despoliation and pollution, almost every responsible corporation in the world is moving away from destructive practices and trying to institute more sustainable ones, and all of them have turned to NGOs to assist, teach, inspire, and urge them on.” – Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest.
Companies are undergoing a significant repurposing as they embrace positive corporate citizenship as a core element of their overarching business persona. Challenged by examples such as Wal-Mart, UPS, and others, companies are embracing Peter Drucker's observation that “every single pressing social and global issue of our time is a business opportunity.” Consequently, corporate citizenship, or CSR, is no longer a nice-to-have element of business strategy – it has evolved to must-have status.
There are several drivers impelling this evolution, including escalating worldwide business concern over social and economic sustainability; climate change; the responsibilities entailed in business globalization; dealing with an increasingly diverse workforce; and responding to the increased market clout – in the US and elsewhere – of an activist Millennials cohort that values CSR as a brand factor. In response, companies are either launching global programs of their own or partnering with activist NGOs that share their philanthropic objectives, such as the Clinton Global Initiative.
For corporate communications pros, this transition presents an opportunity to enhance their effectiveness in a rapidly changing business environment. The overriding objective is to avoid attracting the sobriquet of greenwashing – boosting products and policies as being socially and environmentally friendly when evidence indicates otherwise. Accordingly, we see this conundrum: The company is proud of its citizenship activities, wants to share the lessons learned with peers and stakeholders, and challenge others to do as well or better; but the company does not want its efforts to appear that publicity was a primary reason for pursuing the initiatives.
To steer clear of this trap, CSR must be deeply internalized and include a rigorous audit of every point at which products and/or services impact the public, and take substantial corrective action as needed. Management might not embrace this approach initially, but this will likely change as executives come to see the potential.
The wisest course is to embrace a citizenship initiative as an opportunity to learn. In few areas of CSR is it more important to be ahead of the curve in knowing the shape of things now and things to come. In addition to monitoring blogs and Web sites and digging into relevant books, also use this as an opportunity to learn about the surge of NGO activity that has arisen over the past few years. That is a movement of which you and your company should want to be an active part.
Terry Catchpole is founder and CEO of The Catchpole Corporation, which consults with firms on their executive visibility initiatives in regard to corporate citizenship.