Opinion: Awareness of ethics means CR needs PR

They may not recognise the buzz phrase CR, but judging by a couple of recent surveys, consumers are becoming increasingly switched on to the concept of corporate responsibility.

A staggering 94 per cent of respondents to MORI's corporate responsibility study said they wanted companies to be more transparent and accountable for their actions. Meanwhile, the Co-operative Bank's annual ethical consumerism report charted a rise in the number of consumers considering the environmental impact of their purchases from 55 per cent to 66 per cent.

For years now marketers have sold consumers the idea that you are what you buy; that your choice of brand conveys something about your own values.

So increasing consumer concern about the ethics of brand owners is almost inevitable.

What has taken some companies by surprise is that this burgeoning awareness among their consumer audience actually requires - God forbid - a commitment to communicate... a concept that sends a shudder down the spine of some CR purists.

A few years ago I attended a press conference at the DTI, where the former minister for CSR, Douglas Alexander, delighted an audience of NGOs and CR experts by calling for CR to be kept away from PR in case pure intentions were tainted by spin. And the CR industry has enthusiastically embraced the idea that comms is anathema, preferring to focus on the finer points of CR reporting - a tendency only exacerbated by the Operating and Financial Review.

But the tide may finally be turning. Recently I chaired probably the first conference in the UK to focus on communicating ethical values and branding, during which it was suggested that not only was the trend for CR reporting bypassing consumers, but that even the shareholders and analysts - for whom they are designed - are suffering CR report fatigue.

In many cases a company's conversion to CR will either involve the board making the link between ethics and competitive advantage, or the penny will drop that a poor environmental and human rights record poses a very real threat to reputation. In both cases, CR policies must be communicated not only to shareholders but to consumers as well.

All the PR in the world won't help a company with dubious ethics. But without the involvement of PR professionals at the earliest stages of decision making, firms will miss out on a burgeoning ethical consumer market. Not only that, if good deeds go unsung, they may cease and the whole movement towards ethical business practice could slow.

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