The relationship between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and PR attracts heated debates among public relations practitioners.
Some are adamant about the complete separation of the two. Others, however, see the relationship as nothing but a tool, a marketing trick, so to speak, for an organization’s blatant self-promotion.
This guide aims to define the role of PR in CSR, and what the relationship between the two should be.
The Role of CSR in Modern Organizations
Let's start with a simple fact:
Socially responsible organizations achieve a far greater positive image (or “good company credits,” as some practitioners put it), loyalty and customer trust.
On top of that, in the modern marketplace, CSR initiatives provide the most powerful differentiating factor for businesses.
Today’s customers not only prefer to spend their money with socially or environmentally conscious companies. They also use an organization’s CSR as a way to deliver on their own responsibility to do good.
According to a 2015 Global CSR Study:
91% of global consumers expect companies to do more than make a profit, but also operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues.
What’s more, according to the same research:
84% of them confirm that they seek out responsible products whenever possible.
But there is another statistic that really stands out in the study.
As it turns out, 90% of consumers would boycott a company if they learned of irresponsible or deceptive business practices.
So it should come as no surprise that brands are shifting their focus to environmental and societal issues.
Aside from the societal benefits, CSR practices provide them with an opportunity to boost the bottom line, while strengthening their positive image in the marketplace at the same time.
The challenge, however, lies in how to communicate those CSR efforts.
And that’s exactly where the complex relationship between corporate social responsibility and PR becomes apparent.
The Relationship Between CSR and Brand Communications
In another article, we defined corporate social responsibility as a set of practices that organizations use to contribute to the well-being of their immediate community.
Those practices could revolve around improving product sourcing, reducing pollution, boosting jobs to support the wellbeing of families in local communities, and many others.
And I think you’ll agree with me on this:
Brand communication is how organizations tell the world about their strategies.
Without PR, hardly anyone would ever know about Intermarche’s Inglorious Vegetables initiative, aiming to reduce food waste.
Naturally, the supermarket’s customers would spot posters like those shown above in store. But unless the company communicated the goals of the campaign, would the world notice?
I’d say, unlikely.
Would they become anything more than just another product on a shelf, if not for a strong communication strategy behind them?
But there is a fine line between communicating one’s CSR initiatives, and blatantly using it to boost the company’s image.
Which brings us to the problem in question - should (and do) companies launch CSR initiatives only as a means for gaining greater publicity, and in turn, boosting their bottom lines?
Or, to put it in other words:
Is CSR just a publicity tool?
The answer is a definite no.
As Gaurav Dwivedi, CEO of MyGov, the Indian government’s innovative citizen engagement platform, said at the CSR Leadership Conference in Delhi earlier this year (note, the below is cited via Forbes):
CSR is not PR, you do good because you want to do good. [...] CSR has to be a part of one’s business.
In other words, only by recognizing its responsibility for doing good, the ability to make a difference, and fulfilling this obligation, an organization can reap the rewards CSR offers - positive image, customer loyalty, and trust.
The role of PR in this process is to ensure that customers, along with internal and external stakeholders are aware of the organization’s commitment and efforts.
But that can only happen if a PR strategy comes after the CSR initiative.
As Matthew Rochte from Opportunity Sustainability explains it:
[...] PR can be both a blessing and a curse to CSR. It is a matter of which comes first and what is the intention.
The most important element of this statement is “which comes first.”
Because, when used properly, public relations’ goal is to share an organization’s CSR initiatives. And of course, in turn, contribute to strengthening its image, position and customers’ trust.
But first and foremost, the role of PR in CSR should be to get customers and employees on board with the initiative and:
- Inspire employees to take action, and contribute or participate in the CSR initiative.
- Inform communities about how an organization’s working to deliver good to them.
In other words, PR should give companies a voice to inform and inspire people about their CSR efforts.
Done successfully, Public Relations is the vehicle that enlightens and shares with the world the progress made by companies who are successfully embracing the strategic and integrated nature of CSR.
But that can only happen if the actual initiative comes first, from design to implementation, and PR only follows it as a strategy to communicate it.
Done in the opposite order, CSR becomes nothing but a marketing tool, used solely for improving the company’s bottom line.
And in this instance, as Rochte puts it - “PR is tantamount to 'greenwashing' the 'sins' of a company.”
It’s that simple…
It’s clear that the relationship between CSR and PR is intricate. Having said that, hopefully, after reading this post, you have a much better understanding of PR’s role and how it allows companies to inform customers and employees about their responsibility efforts.