British American Tobacco: our CSR will not convince everyone

British American Tobacco (BAT) is still in the ‘early days’ of its ‘CSR journey’ and accepts that ‘some will never be persuaded’ of the motivations behind its corporate responsibility efforts.

Fran Morrison, head of corporate comms, told delegates at PRWeek's 'High-Impact Corporate Communications' conference this Tuesday that BAT had  been 'quite comforted' by reaction to its CSR programmes – which, she said, BAT began to 'get into' in 2001.

She said: 'We thought we would be [negatively] criticised for taking the leap into CSR. It has been quite heartwarming that this has largely not been the case.'

Morrison's talk, at London's Waldorf Hilton, was entitled 'Communications alone are not enough: responding to external pressure groups and CSR requirements to drive profitability and enhance reputation'.

She acknowledged that critics will always be sceptical as to the intentions of BAT, as a cigarette maker, and that 'megaphone diplomacy' would be unsuccessful in placating its critics.

The firm sees itself as a leader in CSR: Morrison detailed many recent initiatives, such as a 'Bio-Diversity Partnership' with NGOs and the company's meeting of Global Reporting Initiative guidelines.

She described BAT as 'the largest planter of trees in the world outside the paper and pulp industries' and flagged up the fact that BAT's company governance procedures have been featured in a government best-practice guide.

Offering advice to delegates who work for similarly criticised companies, she said: 'Don't announce something and then spend the next ten years defending it because people are attacking it – you need to already understand stakeholders' needs.'

More generally, in a later panel discussion, Morrison pointed to three areas of 'real benefit' to its CSR activities: enabling institutional investors to 'see that management has a grip on risk'; helping to shape staff 'attitudes'; and better engagement with regulators (because 'some European regulators will only meet a firm if it has a social report').

Not all of BAT's CSR reporting has found media favour: last July The Daily Telegraph called its latest report 'politically correct nonsense' and 'gobbledegook'.

Similarly, several campaign groups including Friends of the Earth and Christian Aid have, in the past, slammed BAT as having a 'mask of
social responsibility rhetoric', describing it as 'greenwash'.

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