Is Your Company Trapped By Corporate Social Responsibility?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about corporate social responsibility and how it relates to your business’ public relations strategy. In fact, CSR (yes, it even has its own acronym) has been addressed more than once in this blog. In a  Harvard  Business Review article, February 2007, entitled “Redefining Corporate Social Responsibility”, Mark Kramer asserts that “many CSR campaigns are little more than PR campaigns designed to promote corporate brands–by creating the appearance of being ‘good corporate citizens’. Result? CSR investments that deepen public cynicism and fail to generate real social change.”

Talk about cynical. Kramer more recently co-authored another piece that further explores the idea that without social responsibility and a clear understanding of ‘shared value’, corporations are self-sabotaging.

While Kramer’s initial assertion seems convincing, in “Creating Shared Value”, January 2011, Kramer and his coauthor, Michael E. Porter, substantiate the short-sightedness of corporate policy around the effort and ideology of businesses defining societal obligations in terms of not just PR, but survival and necessity. The broadly, but clearly (and sometimes long-windedly), stated summation is that companies cannot continue to prosper at a significant pace without realizing the interdependence between society’s growing needs and a company’s financial and public relations success. The ongoing battle between society and business (and, yes, there is one) is counterproductive to everyone.

I believe it. Here’s why.

There is evidence that some big companies, like IBM and Wal-Mart, are doing the right thing not just because it makes them look good, but because it’s good business. Profits multiply when, for example, packaging materials are reduced dramatically thereby reducing everything from cost of distribution to cost to the earth. PR practitioners who don’t get the connection at the big-picture level are missing an important way to help their clients succeed. It’s no longer enough to simply get involved with local charitable organizations. Without proof of a core value at work, this “little bit” can come across as insincere and, in fact, can even backfire as a PR strategy. This has been seen over and over in corporate disaster PR management. Much like investing with your ‘soul’, not just your pocketbook, CSR must be embraced and re-identified around shared value; your business and your community and your world must all co-exist, or eventually, everyone and thing, including your profit margins, will suffer; not just your reputation.

Twenty years ago, requiring businesses to hire the disabled or tighten safety rules was often viewed as costly and constraining. To some companies, it still is. Societal needs define markets, and as long as each ‘side’ views the other as an obstacle, innovation cannot flourish and companies will continue to be trapped by their own, stubborn short-sightedness.

Furthermore, elective half-hearted CSR programs like having employees run/sponsor a charity race once each year are just band aids. A PR firm/practitioner who doesn’t understand this and who doesn’t know how to create an atmosphere for true CSR is not a PR team worth having.

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. I’d love your opinion.

Read more on this subject (shared value, CSR) in publications like The Economist, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, and Inc. Magazine.


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2 Responses

  1. LuAnn Glowacz (@luannsaid) says:

    Christine, you beat PRSA to the punch line! Check out this piece released yesterday: Dalberg Report Is Wrong On CSR’s Value http://prsay.prsa.org/index.php/2011/06/21/value-of-repution-on-company-financial-values/

    My thoughts keep coming back to how important good employee recruitment is to CSR. A large tech firm here in Austin (which shall remain nameless) has some great CSR programs in place–in theory–but the work culture has gotten to be such that good potential employees with CSR in their DNA are running away, arms flailing wildly. I wonder if solid CSR actually starts with HR instead of PR? Without buy-in from employees who believe in what you’re doing, how far can you go?

  2. Great post by PRSAY – thanks for sharing. And so right on.

    Corporations and businesses do not exist on an island. Neither does the private sector. Therefore, until the business sector completely and entirely wraps its arms around the concept of shared value as the only way to flourish, we as a society are destined for more of the same – failing economies, thousands of people living in poverty, high crime rates, Wall Street pillaging, etc.

    As PR professionals, I believe it is time we become evangalistic about the importance of shared value in relation to CSR. Ideally, I agree with you – it should start with HR – but that would assume that it’s something aleady in place. I believe that often, PR pros are called in when businesses realize there’s a missing piece to their success puzzle. It is at that time that we help them to restructure and rethink the way they are doing business; which goes beyond believing in what you’re doing – It means understanding that all sectors of society, including government, must proceed interdependently. It’s an entire shift in conciousness – and it will work. But it will take time, and a lot of convincing. The good old boy mentality is still very much alive and well. But we can break it down effectively, if we truly understand what we’re doing, how to do it, and first and most importantly, WHY we need to do it.

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