Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the idea that a business’s customers, stakeholders and employees can hold the organization socially accountable. To put CSR into practice, companies design their operations to help enhance local economies, protect the environment and support their workforces.
However, increasingly globalized production processes and a lack of corporate transparency can obscure whether an organization is truly engaging in CSR. In addition, incidents like the BP oil spill and the Boeing 737 Max crashes can undermine CSR efforts and force companies to pivot to the uphill climb of apology-based messaging – a task few marketers relish. To earn the trust of customers and employees, businesses can show they have sacrificed short-term profits for long-term values. In other words, they can prioritize and communicate CSR.
Organizations should take a well-rounded and thoughtful approach to CSR. The following actions can help keep CSR top-of-mind throughout the company:
Peripheral CSR efforts, such as charitable donations or recycling programs, do contribute to overall social responsibility. But a more effective approach is to deeply embed CSR throughout the organization. Committing to diversity and offering environmentally friendly products and services are effective tactics to entrench CSR. Plus, engraining CSR in the corporate psyche can have other interesting, if unexpected, benefits – one study found that firms engaging in “more embedded and meaningful forms of corporate responsibility” are less likely to experience hacks or data breaches.
Employees can be a company’s most powerful advocates or dissenters, depending on their experience. Thus, fulfilling obligations to them, while treating them fairly and respectfully, is critical. Some of the ways in which employers can show they are prioritizing their social responsibility to workers is by providing quality health insurance, paying workers reasonably and helping them invest in their futures. In addition, engaging employees in events such as fundraisers or 5K races empowers them to contribute to the organization’s broader CSR goals.
When a company does not practice the social responsibility it claims to value, it can undermine its attempts to advance CSR and position itself as a leader and good corporate citizen. For instance, Walmart misleadingly touted some of its plastic products as eco-friendly, which led to widespread accusations of greenwashing and a $1 million settlement. Large corporations may be able to absorb this kind of reputational and financial blow, but other organizations may suffer more severe and long-lasting consequences. Aligning actions with messaging is key to maintaining credible CSR claims.
Effective CSR messaging is robust, values-focused and bold. Executing internal communications campaigns emphasizing philanthropic giving, sustainability efforts and employee wellness can help communicate social responsibility to workers and engage them in CSR-related activities. Externally, it is important to ensure customers, prospects and the public understand how an organization is fulfilling its social responsibility. Using tactics such as social media, video production, press outreach and advertising enables organizations to convey CSR in an integrated manner.
Consider the following as part of your CSR communication plan:
The most effective way to communicate CSR is to show how an organization’s values align with its CSR endeavors. For instance, Ben & Jerry’s backs up its mission of using “innovative ways to make the world a better place.” by offering generous grants to Vermont-based non-profits working to address the “economic, social and environmental impacts of poverty.” Helping to combat poverty is one way to help make the world a better place, and the grant program aligns nicely with company values. Studying successful CSR messaging from organizations such as Ben & Jerry’s and Starbucks can help companies enhance their own CSR communications.
Finally, communicating CSR effectively means being bold. Issues like the climate crisis and racial injustice are more important than ever in the minds of many consumers and can affect their purchasing decisions. In a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Sofidel, 77% of Americans said they would prefer to purchase from brands that prioritize fighting global warming over brands that do not. As the public grows increasingly concerned about the planet and the way in which companies are contributing to social change, brands should implement creative and daring efforts to enact positive change in the communities in which they operate.
In the age of COVID-19, prioritizing and communicating social responsibility requires a clear strategy to protect the health of employees and the general public. Consider the following tactics as the pandemic continues:
Racial and ethnic minorities, including Black and Native American communities, have been hit hardest by the pandemic in the United States. There are many reasons for this, including that residents of marginalized communities often do not have widespread access to credible public health information or affordable healthcare. Companies can conduct outreach to these communities and provide them with public health information like Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines or local recommendations regarding masks and physical distancing. They can also deploy foundation funds to bolster these communities financially and increase their resiliency.
The pandemic has forced the closures of thousand of small businesses, from retailers to restaurants and hotels. Established organizations can demonstrate a commitment to CSR by helping smaller suppliers or vendors stay afloat. For instance, a large retailer could offer advance payments to its smaller suppliers, offering them much-needed cash now for goods they will need to produce later. Harvard Business Review calls this idea “the corporate equivalent of buying gift cards to keep your local store in business.”
Companies that focus their corporate giving on COVID-related causes show their commitment to CSR and public health. For instance, assisting food pantries or health clinics by offering services, supplies, food and funding can make a major, and direct, positive impact on local communities. COVID-19 actually presents businesses with an opportunity to show they are willing to sacrifice short-term gains to protect the public during a crisis.
The importance of corporate social responsibility is more elevated than ever. By communicating CSR efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, brands can demonstrate they are truly committed to social responsibility and stay accountable to employees, stakeholders and customers. That is the essence of CSR.
Would you like to improve your CSR messaging? Contact us today to discuss a CSR communications program for your business.
Thomas Jilk is a Senior Account Executive at Mulberry Marketing Communications, an award-winning full-service B2B communications agency based in Chicago, London and Australia. He uses his journalism and marketing skills to tell compelling brand stories for clients.