Corporate social responsibility, and the role that communications plays within it, is a controversial subject. Arguments about style over substance, and where communications sits within the CSR framework, are often heated.
So when CSR agency Futerra Sustainability Communications teamed up with communications agency CTN, PRWeek and the IPR to run an online discussion on the issue on 12 November, more than 200 CSR practitioners and communication professionals signed in to express their opinions.
The aspect of spin, particularly when it came to CSR reports, was an issue immediately jumped upon by debaters. Indeed, the gap between what companies do and what they say remains wide, according to participants.
'I've read most corporate CSR reports, and very few reflect the real business,' noted one debater. Another agreed: 'I find I'm becoming increasingly cynical about CSR reports, and think that culture change needs to come from the top down. If senior management do not live the values why should anyone else be expected to do so?'
There was also concern that such reports had become the sole focus of CSR. One participant dismissed the reports as 'boring, overpowered by the shareholder agenda and devoid of transformative purpose'. It is the box-ticking mentality that bothered debaters, who pointed out that the easiest way for companies to demonstrate they are complying with increasing demands and regulations is to compile a single 'catch-all' report.
Praise where it's due
Nevertheless, the companies that did go beyond reporting and promoting their actions were praised. BP's 'more performance, less pollution' petrol caught the debaters' attention, as did Powergen's push to get people to turn their TVs off standby. Kia's 'think before you drive' campaign also won plaudits.
It was noted, however, that many large companies investing in CSR were not communicating the fact externally, for fear of being criticised in public. Debaters argued that senior management support for CSR programmes was crucial if the process was to be more than cosmetic. 'Like any change management programme it has to (involve) both internal communications sponsored from the top and getting people involved in CSR-led activities within the company,' one participant said.
Unfortunately, some debaters also felt that the way to get senior management support was for the bosses to get embarrassed in public. 'It only takes one board member to be caught out publicly - at a press conference or an industry gathering or government meeting - and overnight a push develops to work out a CSR strategy. Cynical, but true. Business people rarely act out of altruism,' was one response to a request for advice on pushing CSR up the management ladder.
The optimists ultimately argued that organisations that hadn't taken steps would be made to implement CSR through social pressure. Others cited the influence of socially responsible investment funds as a key factor in pushing change.
This aspect of the debate also raised the thorny question of the communication business's own attitude to CSR. The irony that one part of a communications business could pronounce on CSR while another division represented Third World dictators was not lost on participants.
'Like all good CSR, it starts internally,' said one debater. 'It's very difficult to have a robust, defensible and enforceable CSR policy in PR if your job is to make big dirty, corporate cock-ups look less bad,' another added.
A further question was whether CSR was merely a fashion or whether a strong business case had been made that would ensure the field would continue to develop. Sceptics were concerned that companies might soon move onto a new fashion, leaving specialist practitioners looking at an unfriendly job market.
On the other hand, supporters pointed out that companies have continued to invest during some tough times and the financial benefits of efficiency and employee satisfaction would never go out of style. 'The CSR initiative has continued to thrive even during recent economic hard times. Perhaps we have made the business case strongly enough,' argued one debater.
Another responded: 'CSR is about encouraging companies to be open and honest with themselves, their employees, their customers and the community about what they are doing.'
Supporters of CSR also pointed to historical case studies demonstrating the benefits to businesses. A good example was Lord Lever building Port Sunlight for his workers. Commentators were pleased to see that the current changes to company law in the UK are also part of this evolution.
Amid this confidence about the future of socially responsible business, there was a heated discussion about the role of communications within this framework. If CSR is about transforming a company's 'walking and living lifestyle', does it sit within internal communications or business strategy?
'There appears to be broad agreement that CSR needs to be built into the frameworks of companies to be effective,' summarises one participant.
Indeed, there was general consensus that it's the CSR performance of the middle managers, the people who actually run the business on a day-to-day basis that guarantees corporate reputations, today and tomorrow. 'Get them onside and communications and performance become two sides of the same coin,' one debater advised.
One participant even argued that focusing on external communications would hamper the development of CSR as an externally driven approach to CSR leads to communications budgets eating more and more into the limited CSR pot.
The communications role
But should it really be communications that is the main driver of a CSR programme? Some participants argued that communication is key to making CSR more meaningful for all stakeholders, as it turns policy and activity into action. But others stressed that communication was secondary to the business processes. 'Communication cannot be the main driver, or even a key driver of CSR. Communication should be a facilitator, a way for companies to engage their stakeholders in developing appropriate CSR policies and strategies, and a way of celebrating success,' argued one debater.
Participants cited a number of CSR campaigns where communications had clearly been integrated right from the start, praising cause-related marketing efforts such as Tesco's Computers for Schools and Avon's work with breast cancer.
The subject of communications also raised the tricky issue of stakeholder response. CSR ideally involves a two-way dialogue with stakeholders, something that current business culture doesn't really encourage.
'I agree that the involvement of key stakeholders is necessary for change.
This implies that communication is two-way and that decision processes are open to stakeholders,' says one contributor.
However, another respondent was concerned that while true involvement means power sharing, how many directors will actually welcome citizens onto their boards? One suggestion was to invite key audiences to 'learn with a company'.
Overall, the belief that CSR is here to stay shone through in the debate.
It has survived in recent tough times and practitioners seem confident the business case can be made for continuing investment. However, although no one wants to create a discipline that is dominated by a one-size-fits-all approach there are also significant disagreements about where CSR sits in the business process.
Ultimately, a degree of scepticism remains about whether many organisations will be willing to do more than merely produce reports. Given that it was widely accepted that senior management backing was needed to give CSR impetus, it seems that there's still plenty of work for CSR specialists to do.
CSR HOW TO KEEP COSTS DOWN
Much of the debate around communicating corporate social responsibility appears to rest on the premise that companies have a budget of thousands.
Glossy brochures about social responsibility policy may be okay for FTSE 100 firms, but the challenge for smaller or more financially challenged companies is to find a more cost-effective way to communicate your position.
The contributors to the online debate suggested a number of effective ways to spread the message without going over budget.
- Use the web. This can be cheaper than print if you want to reach a large number of people and it also allows two-way communication.
- Create feedback mechanics online rather than leaving an open-ended reply box. Using surveys or voting can avoid generating huge numbers of incoming emails that will be expensive to respond to. If you want to have a more open-ended discussion, online debates can concentrate responses into a manageable time frame, and allow you to have the experts on hand.
- Hold meetings with your shareholders rather than throwing information at them. This allows you to present a summary of your activities as well as answering their questions.
- Incorporate CSR messages in mainstream information. An eye-catching section in the Report & Accounts won't cost as much as a separate brochure, and it will also get the message into the mainstream of communications.
- Use existing internal channels. Employee intranet, regular staff briefings, and the induction process can all be used to reach fellow workers. Getting articles on CSR into staff newsletters and magazines also enables you to communicate with the internal audience.
- Concentrate on the beneficiaries of your CSR policies rather than the policies themselves. Demonstrating the impact that being socially aware can have will be far more effective than simply focusing on the organisation's efforts to make it happen.