Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the concept that corporations should be aware of the environmental and social impact of their work and that they should do something to mitigate it. Essentially, CSR results in charitable donations, investments, and initiatives that help raise up communities, reduce carbon emissions, and generally attempt to make the world a better place.
The potential for CSR is significant, mostly down to the cash value of corporate investments compared with a governmental fund or individual donations. However, a significant number of companies engage in CSR as a marketing ploy and are not motivated to generate actual benefit with their programs. The question then becomes, how much of CSR actually makes a difference, and how can companies do it right?
Greenwashing: CSR as a marketing stunt
Back in 2015, Volkswagen became the poster child for how to fail at CSR. Whilst claiming to support the environment by producing environmentally friendly cars, the company in fact did not employ a host of ethical standards, showing that their commitment to the environment was entirely a marketing stunt to improve sales. The discovery resulted in a huge scandal, the resignation of their CEO, and losing the trust of their consumers.
Volkswagen’s lesson is that you can’t engage in CSR unless you’re truly committed. If you try and half-heartedly pursue massive goals, your consumers will eventually find out and the impact will be severe. When thinking about CSR goals, be realistic about what you can achieve and what difference you want to make. A small goal pursued genuinely is more powerful than a major change that you don’t really care about.
6 Key Steps In Developing CSR programs
If you’ve identified a goal you are genuinely passionate about and believe your company can make a significant difference in, there are a few things to bear in mind when creating your CSR program.
As we touched on above, there’s no use shouting about big goals if you’re not able to properly pursue them. Similarly, chasing a goal bigger than you could ever achieve is not going to do much for your social reputation. Pick something significant but a to start with, or better yet an overall vision with smaller achievements along the way, to show your consumers you’re actively working on your CSR.
This also ties into motivation. Saving the whales is a great goal, but unless your business has something to do with whales consumers may wonder why you’re not pursuing goals more relevant to you. Find something you have a clear and consistent motivation to pursue, whether it’s something personal to your CEO or mitigating the impact of your operations, and explain to consumers why it’s important to you.
CSR initiatives are often what companies turn to salvage their reputations after scandals. This is where the disingenuous goals really come into play: they never had any intention of saving the whales, but everyone loves whales so they hope a fund might win them favor with their consumers.
The thing is, consumers are aware now of that tactic, so it rarely works. CSR generally enhances an already good reputation rather than improving a bad one, so don’t think of it as a way to engender your brand to consumers. CSR should be a small part of your overall reputation, not the thing that holds it all together.
In a similar vein, try to avoid using your CSR initiatives as a weapon to skewer your competitors. Advertising a social project your funding is fine, but if you start to point out how much more socially conscious you are than your competitors you will come across as petty and your consumers’ suspicions will be roused again.
A much more powerful tactic is to involve your competitors in your CSR programs. Keelly Brooke, a PR expert at Writinity and Lastminutewriting, reminds us that “initiatives involving multiple companies are far more impactful than individual corporate actions, so inviting your competitors to cooperate or contribute to your programs is a great way to make a more significant difference and prove to your consumers that this isn’t about your reputation (even if it is).”
Don’t expect an immediate win with your social change programs. As we’ve mentioned, your consumers will be naturally suspicious at first, so trying to turn around your successes too quickly will come across as opportunistic.
This is precisely why you have to be genuinely interested in your CSR goals. The media rarely reports on CSR goals when asked to do so by companies, but might report if the change your program is making is significant enough to become a news story. Putting effort and investment into a goal that eventually becomes a news story is a far more humble and, as a result, more effective marketing tool than shouting about a plan to appear altruistic.
That doesn’t mean you should stay entirely silent on your CSR initiatives. It’s fine to talk about what god you’re doing as a company, in fact, you should aim to have a program you can be proud of, but don’t put it front and center all the time or it becomes a shield, and shields weaken over time.
“Your CSR goals are best used sparingly, but reactively,” says Dina Harmon, a business writer at Draftbeyond and Researchpapersuk. “When your company’s integrity is called into question, point to your CSR programs as an example of how you support your intentions. This should also inspire you to keep on improving your offerings, proving after every attack that you’#re not resting on your laurels.”
A small but important point: different countries react to altruism differently. The U.S. and U.K. are comfortable with corporate charitable actions, whereas in Western European countries governments are expected to do the brunt of charitable work. If you operate multinationally, pay attention to cultural differences when you talk about your CSR.
Cover photo by niko photos on Unsplash