Short of the desired impact: Why are CSR communications failing to communicate?

7 years, 10 months ago


Too much CSR communications remains irrelevant or misses the mark because it fails to tell the story of who really benefits. Companies need to re-think how they talk about their CSR commitments so that what they say and how they say it is more meaningful t

Companies that are committed to and engaged in corporate social responsibility invest significant resources in an attempt to increase awareness of their CSR commitments and leverage those to build positive corporate reputation.  Consumers around the world express a desire to learn about a company’s CSR initiatives, a preference to do business with companies who are good corporate citizens and a willingness to stop doing business with companies whose practices have a negative impact on employees, communities or the environment. A 2012 survey of 47,000 consumers across 15 markets conducted by Forbes and Reputation Institute found that perceptions of a company’s social responsibility accounts for 42% of how consumers feel about that company.   So, it certainly makes sense that companies would make shaping those perceptions a priority.  
Are these CSR communications efforts having the desired impact?  The evidence would indicate that, for the most part, the answer is clearly no.  In a recent survey from Penn Schoen Berland, only 11% of US consumers said that they’d heard communications about CSR from any company.   Only 13% say they have read about a CSR agenda on a company’s website.  And who would?  CSR information on those sites is usually filled with dry corporate language and CSR lingo that may connect with activists, regulators, procurement and policy makers but would leave most consumers scratching their heads.   
So, if CSR communications are failing to communicate, how are perceptions about companies’ CSR efforts being formed?  Based on the various surveys from a variety of countries that report perceptions of companies in terms of their CSR actions, it would appear that those perceptions are being formed relatively randomly.  At the least, it is safe to say that there’s no clear link with actual CSR actions or with CSR communications efforts.  
Fortune Magazine’s 2012 "Most Admired Companies" survey ranks Altria number 4 in social responsibility. Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris.  Really?  A tobacco company is a leader in CSR?  GE, a company that has spent tens of millions of dollars on its ecomagination campaign doesn’t even make the top 10.  And the Forbes survey has Microsoft in the number one spot from a CSR perspective.  While Microsoft’s CSR actions may be laudable, are people confusing Microsoft’s CSR with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?   
What’s happening here?  Are consumers paying attention to CSR communications?  Are most of the communications efforts on the part of companies who are actually performing very well on CSR measures simply not connecting with consumers?  
Understanding the shift
CSR appears to be the one area where many companies have failed to apply the important lessons we’re all learning about the shifting communications dynamic.  Today, successful organizations understand that shift. The explosion in digital and social media channels has resulted in a highly networked, engaged and empowered set of stakeholders whose online conversations shape the perceptions, attitudes and behaviors that impact every brand.  
The old model of a tightly controlled corporate or brand strategy and tightly protected brand expression has been replaced by a much more fluid and de-centralized dynamic where consumers, employees, bloggers and other stakeholders are weighing in on every aspect of business strategy from product design to pricing, distribution, marketing and, of course, CSR.  A successful organization will track, listen and engage in their conversations and will understand how to shape these strategies accordingly.   
Most CSR-related communications boil down to a company boasting about some particular initiative or other – a new solar-powered distribution center, for example.  While that might indeed be a valid and important initiative, is communicating that fact going to connect effectively with consumers?  Will it break through the noise and clutter that we’re all bombarded with?  Will it change hearts and minds, and so build reputation, preference and behaviors?  In other words, are companies communicating their CSR commitments and initiatives in ways that establish those CSR efforts as truly relevant to consumers?  
Making it meaningful
Relevance is the key after all.  It is about making any organization, product, service or social cause so meaningful to an individual that it becomes highly relevant and establishes a successful connection beyond superficial awareness.  At Brodeur Partners, this is the point of view that we bring to every client assignment including CSR.  Based on learnings from behavioral science, behavioral economics and social marketing, we have developed a framework and methodology that allow us to understand and shape the four most important factors that drive human beings’ perception of relevance:
• Thinking: It delivers solutions and makes life easier, better
• Social: I want to be associated with it 
• Sensory: I like the feeling I get, it inspires me 
• Values: It stands for the same things I do  
The more an organization can deliver across all four of those factors, the more relevant they will become for their audiences.  That same rule should be applied to establishing relevance for a company’s CSR platform.  
Here are some tips to help establish relevance specific to CSR:
  1. Listen, listen, listen – We have unprecedented access to the conversations consumers are having about a company and about the social and environmental issues that concern them.  Listen to those conversations on social media and let them inform what content and programs you deliver.  Find the particular segments of your audience that are most inclined to engage around CSR and the individuals in those segments who are highly networked.  Stay in the conversations and don’t stop listening.  Ever. 
  2. Align with the company’s core vision, mission and social assets – Keep it real and authentic in terms of who the company actually is.  Align CSR communications so these assets drive credibility.
  3. Back it with solid commitment from top management – Management’s commitment is the ultimate litmus test.  Communications will be most successful when a company’s values, management’s values and consumers’ values are all in sync. 
  4. Deliver on that commitment with consistent behavior – Consumers have little patience for companies who don’t carry through on their stated commitments with consistent behavior.  Witness the (appropriate) hits to CSR reputation as a result of the horrible factory tragedies in Bangladesh.  Those lapses in stated commitments trump even the best communications efforts. 
  5. Prove it with products or services with clear social and environmental benefits – These are the ultimate proof points since it is where the consumer actually experiences a company’s CSR agenda.  Consumer perception of Toyota’s corporate citizenship is driven, to a great extent, by its early roll-out of the Prius hybrid.   No communications effort can beat that for establishing relevance in CSR.
  6. Connect with employees and consumers on shared values – The real opportunity for CSR communications is to strengthen the connections with these audiences based on shared values.  It is imperative that a company understand which values are shared with these audiences and then tie everything back to those values.  Build values-based relevance.  
  7. Ensure that employees are front and center – Establishing relevance for CSR activities among employees should be the top priority.  Employee-focused communications should be organized around the key factors that drive relevance just as for consumer audiences.
  8. Offer easy ways for consumers to connect, engage and support – Relevance is established through the experience of a company’s CSR, not by merely reading or hearing about it.  UK retailer Marks & Spencer gets this.  They invite consumers to join with them to achieve CSR impact in meaningful ways through their "Plan A".
  9. Contribute skills and product, not just money – When it comes to philanthropic and community-focused components of CSR, communicating how a company creates social value through the application of employee skills and through its products will strengthen relevance.  It’s where function meets values.  
  10. Demonstrate impact beyond numbers – Numbers are important of course.  CSR data must be collected and reported.  Go beyond the numbers and show impact through the voices of those who are benefiting from CSR efforts and those who are participating (management, employees, partners, consumers).  Collect and share these individuals’ stories and make them the CSR heroes, not the corporation. 
It is time to refresh our approach to CSR communications.  It is time to stop wasting corporate resources on communications that miss the mark. Focusing on building relevance will result in higher awareness, enhanced reputation and, most importantly, truly engaged employees and consumers who participate alongside companies in tackling some of our most pressing social and environmental challenges.  
Thought Leader Profile
David Zucker, Executive Vice President, Managing Director, Brodeur Partners. David heads up Brodeur Partners’ CSR and Sustainability specialty as well as the New York office. David has more than 25 years of experience in virtually all communications disciplines. He has provided strategic communications counsel that has effectively engaged audiences around a variety of social causes. From corporate social responsibility efforts on behalf of clients like Procter & Gamble, Hewlett Packard, Absolut Vodka, British Airways and Timberland to the ‘truth’ teen anti-tobacco campaign on behalf of the American Legacy Foundation to HIV/AIDS, family planning and health promotion on behalf of government agencies like USAID and the CDC, David has helped to shape and implement successful social responsiblity and behavior change programs. He has extensive experience building partnerships across sectors and providing trainings in a variety of communications disciplines to audiences around the world. His international experience includes work on the ground in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. 
David is a recognized thought leader and has been cited frequently by the media including the New York Times, Fox Business News, US News and World Report and the Times of London. David has received multiple awards including International Public Relations Association’s Golden World Award and the Public Relations Society of America’s Silver Anvil.

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The Author

David Zucker

David Zucker, Executive Vice President, Managing Director, Brodeur Partners. David heads up Brodeur Partners’ CSR and Sustainability specialty as well as the New York office. He has more than 25 years of experience in virtually all communications disciplines.

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