Analysis: Media attention to CSR varies around the world

Fresh research into media coverage of CSR issues on a global level has revealed a gulf in attitudes between different countries, writes Chris Scott

The rise in media coverage of CSR in the UK is out of all proportion to corresponding trends in France and Germany, research out this week claims. The Giving Back 2 report into CSR around the world, compiled by Echo Research and presented at the IPR conference last week, indicates that while CSR is a hot topic in the UK, that is not the case around the world.

The report shows that UK coverage of CSR in the print media rose 131 per cent to 293 mentions in 2001 compared to 2000. Coverage of CSR in the US dropped by 40 per cent over the same period to 86 mentions, while Germany saw an eight per cent rise, but clocked just 41 mentions. Coverage in France rose 125 per cent to 153 mentions.

The report, based on monitoring of national media across France, Germany, the UK and US, plus interviews with CSR decision-makers, attributes the lack of interest in CSR in Germany to the country's existing regulatory controls. Despite the drop in the level of coverage of CSR in the US, the report claims that the existing coverage was more favourable than in the past.

Echo Research CEO Sandra McLeod admits the research suggests difficulties in planning global CSR comms when markets react so differently to it: 'It's a challenge for those undertaking CSR work globally. There is so much attention to be paid to being local and focussed on the local news agenda, but you are attempting to achieve this with a global brand. Companies have to realise that they can't be all things to all people. They will have certain tramlines at a global level, but there has to be a degree of flexibility in how it rolls out locally.'

McLeod says the corporate and governmental histories of the countries studied were key factors in their differing reactions to CSR: 'Germany has always been strong on triple bottom line reporting, and matters undertaken as CSR in other territories are ingrained in Germany's corporate and regulatory rules. France, on the other hand, was initially very sceptical of what was perceived to be another Anglo-Saxon invention. Now there is a recognition that the State can't do everything, so there is a role for large international companies.'

McLeod adds that the history of philanthropy in the US is now being usurped by CSR, claiming that in many instances companies are looking to the UK for their lead: 'People in the US are now saying that they need to engage their stakeholders rather than just throwing money at an issue. They're becoming a lot more strategic, and it is no longer just about the money.

Some major global firms are turning to their British arms for help, realising that there is more thinking and experience of CSR here.'

In a wide-ranging report, the Echo document also details the views of a number of CSR decision-makers on how a company can benefit financially from its CSR activities - underlining the ever-elusive business case.

While 14 per cent of respondents admitted to finding difficulties in quantifying the financial benefit to a company, others stated that benefits included 'boosting awareness among future consumers', 'providing a licence to operate in the Third World' and giving the company involved, for later use, 'the reputational benefit of the doubt'.

Indeed, one of those surveyed concluded that 'the proof of the pudding is what people think of you, regardless of what the inputs and outputs are.'

McLeod argues that companies looking for a short-term financial return from their CSR activities were likely to be disappointed: 'Properly executed CSR, which becomes part of a company's corporate governance and risk management, is more likely to lead to working and financial benefit later. Companies don't often say that their CSR work has been profitable in the short-term.

'The difficulty is that the market is still very short-term focused.

The more long-term view a company can take, the more benefit a company can look to enjoy,' she adds.

The eagerness for companies to see a financial return from their CSR efforts tallies with a reluctance on the part of the media to believe in these purported altruistic motives, supported by the report's finding that this is the most common negative media comment on CSR.

McLeod admits that a lot of this hostility stems from errors in the execution of the CSR plan on the part of companies themselves: 'The problems come from when a company gets it wrong, and it is the power and right of the media to stand up to them. Sometimes it stems from the wrong strategy, and sometimes it is through bad communications - often it is just a bad management decision.'

She adds: 'There is a danger for companies in stating that they are whiter than white. They need to learn humility and explain that they are trying to improve their activities, otherwise they will be torn down by the press at the first opportunity.'

There are many in the CSR communications field who will know how that feels.

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