As corporate social responsibility moves up the business agenda, PROs are increasingly finding themselves caught between the desire of client firms to communicate their CSR strategies to stakeholders and a band of CSR sceptics cynical of any PR involvement.
Faced with these confusing messages, the IPR has launched a dedicated steering group to guide PROs through the social reporting jungle - and ensure PR's voice is heard in the CSR debate.
Last week, the IPR's CSR Network met for the first time, bringing together more than 30 practitioners from both agency and in-house departments, academic departments and NGOs.
The group has enlisted its first chairman, Shell International issues adviser Rob Colmer, and has identified key issues to address: the need to promote the ethical correlation between PR and CSR; build the business case for CSR and improve understanding of the role of sustainable and accountable business.
Colmer says: 'The group has a number of roles, one of them being best practice, but almost before that is raising awareness and understanding of CSR. We will be trying to get some consistency of views within the industry.'
While the group will, of course, provide an ideal platform to share ideas and views among practitioners, the IPR is keen for the group not to be seen purely as a chance to network, but as a vehicle to achieve real results.
IPR head of policy Nigel O'Connor says that although the group's agenda will be member-driven, they 'would like to see the broad objectives really turned into measurables and work on policy so we can contribute to the debate rather than just use it as a networking opportunity'.
The IPR has representation on the EU's multi-stakeholder forum, the European PR Confederation, and as Colmer says, is well-placed to allow the steering group to 'feed in views of actual practitioners to the consultation process'.
The IPR hopes to use CSR Network to help eradicate the perception that social and environmental reporting is mere spin. There is, he adds, a real business case in CSR, which needs to be communicated.
Business In The Community (BITC) is contributing to the development of the steering group with this in mind. Deputy CEO Peter Davies says: 'The PR profession and companies are open to criticism of CSR being a PR exercise. It needs the IPR to take a lead in proving it's something PROs take seriously and that they recognise the reputational opportunities - and the risks if it's not handled properly.'
O'Connor believes reporting CSR in a measurable way would help counteract the criticisms of PR involvement. And some believe the introduction of legislation and mandatory reporting is key to this concept.
Labour MP for Ilford North Linda Perham, who addressed the steering group's inaugural meeting, believes if CSR standards are enforced, the debate will move away from PR gloss.
'If there's mandatory reporting, there will be a standard - it won't just be glossy brochures but real figures to communicate how companies are helping communities,' says Perham, who is preparing a third CSR private member's bill. The first two, although thrown out, achieved wide support.
The Government is preparing Company Law legislation for next year and Perham believes groups such as CSR Network are vital in raising awareness of the issue before the bill is put forward: 'We have got work to do in making sure that CSR becomes talked about and hopefully acted on.'
Not everyone, however, joins Perham in her enthusiasm for mandatory reporting.
Former Greenpeace director and Burson-Marsteller consultant Lord Melchett says the drawing up of standards - and PR involvement - should be secondary to actions.
'It's extremely important that groups such as CSR Network recognise the significance of CSR issues and that they are aware that this is not a matter for comms departments alone, but rather that they are part of the core business activity of the firm and must be led by the CEO and board,' he argues.
As Melchett points out, taking meaningful CSR action could mean changes at the very heart of businesses, including manufacturing processes and product lines. Reporting, he adds, is all very well in terms of investors and staff, but the outside world is more interested in action: 'From a PR point of view, if you try and communicate without taking action, you will fail anyway.'
The IPR group will play a central role in winning over CSR sceptics, but only if it continues to bring the debate back to the crux of the issue: firms must ensure they are acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.
CSR Network is preparing to draw up an agenda in early 2003, but is, in the meantime, focusing on recruiting as many members as possible. O'Connor says the group will hold an open meeting in the new year and hopes to 'throw it open to the wider membership'.
'This issue is something that transcends sector groups - we want representation from the whole spectrum of IPR members,' he adds.
Those interested in receiving further information and in joining the CSR network should email the IPR at firstname.lastname@example.org.