Socially Responsible Communication Methods

About a week ago, PR News held a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to honor those who had the best corporate social responsibility (CSR) communications in 2009. Some of the winners were Nickelodeon for Cause Branding Campaign, Puget Sound Energy for Corporate-Community Partnership and The Body Shop for Human Rights Communications.

This awards ceremony signifies the role of CSR in the business world and shows that it has come to be a top executive priority. According to Richard Edelman’s blog, 6 A.M., the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy’s Annual CEO Conference conducted a poll. This poll showed that 55 percent of CEOs believe that social impact is more valuable to their companies than business benefits.

Also at the conference, 62 percent of the CEOs polled said they want to take a leadership role in combating social issues. None of them believe they are at risk of job loss if they focus too much on these issues. Edelman, who is president and CEO of his self-titled PR firm, calls this kind of thinking “Capitalism 4.0.”

I think it is a great thing for corporations and companies to pay more attention to the effects they can have on society; we can wind up in a better place if CEOs and presidents make executive decisions that try to exert the least amount of negative impacts as possible.

However, when reading through some PR blogs and assessing bloggers’ thoughts on what CSR means for PR representatives, I started to experience some mixed feelings.

The first blog post I read that dealt with CSR was Tom Murphy’s blog, Murphy’s Law. Murphy currently does PR for Microsoft. He observed that there are not many conversations occurring online about how companies should focus on effectively communicating their commitment to CSR. He thinks a lot of companies are doing great work but are not sharing it with the public when they should.

Murphy went on to mention Kellie McElhaney, Corporate Responsibility Faculty Director at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. He talked about her book, Just Good Business. In the book, Murphy stresses the importance of CSR. She says CSR should be part of a company’s core business strategy, and companies must efficiently measure and promote the impacts of their CSR efforts.

In a way, the idea of “promoting” the good a company does reminds me of people who only do generous things so they can brag about it later and create the image of a genuinely nice person. This defeats the purpose of giving and destroys the definition of a true “kind soul.”

To confuse my thoughts on the issue even more were Kevin Moss’s words at the PR News CSR awards. Moss, the person in charge of BT’s North American CSR strategy, said he thinks authenticity and company trust can be established if companies take CSR values and apply them to their broader business practices.

To add to that, he said authenticity can be achieved if inconsistencies within business operations are pointed out and addressed. (His example of an inconsistency was a business supporting organizations that try to end poverty and homelessness while paying workers minimum wage.) Basically, Moss thinks volunteering and other forms of engagement should be used to heighten awareness of business issues.

So, in the end, I am fighting an inner battle. It is wonderful that companies want to conduct business with CSR in mind. However, “authenticity” is not possible if a company is only doing it with the goal to create a sincere and wholesome image for itself.

This makes me question if it is ethical for a PR representative to push CSR to advance reputation goals. Perhaps the effect on company image is just an added benefit and not the entire motivation, making it okay to promote CSR decisions within a company. Or maybe too much good is achieved when CSR is practiced that it does not matter if PR people are using it to only achieve communication goals. It gets complicated.

I guess you and I have to make the socially responsible judgment call. So, in that case, I will say that if your heart is sincerely in the right place, then you should be just fine.

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5 Responses to Socially Responsible Communication Methods

  1. Pingback: Tom Murphy – Murphy’s Law » Effective Corporate Social Responsibility needs PR

  2. tburns says:

    In response to your post, “Effective Corporate Social Responsibility needs PR,” I do want to clarify that I am not against PR promoting CSR entirely.

    At the end of the post, I wrote that I think there needs to be sincerity in running a business or corporation with CSR as a driving component, and I want to know how we can effectively communicate such sincerity.

    I must say that I could not agree more with your belief that “communication should be appropriate and transparent, but companies should not be embarrassed to tell people how they are constructively being a responsible citizen.”

    My point is that motivation needs to be taken into consideration, and CSR needs to be promoted carefully. As you did say, there is not much conversation about how CSR should be communicated.

    Frankly, what I want to know is how does CSR get promoted with passion and sincerity without sounding forced or fake? When thinking about CSR in PR, I kept seeing this awful image of a high school student with a long list of clubs and organization they participated in just to get accepted into a good school.

    I would like to see how PR can avoid such a phony image as that. I think it can be done. I just want to see more conversation on HOW it can be done tactfully, and I was very happy to see your attempt at starting such a conversation.

  3. dolson says:

    CSR is tricky because people get bored fast with good, happy stories. People will tune out if you promote goodwill too often; and doing it too little creates impressions of artificiality.

    I saw this a lot while stationed in Japan. We wrote releases about American and Japanese warships on maneuvers, or groups of American sailors cleaning up beaches or visiting orphanages, and circulate them through the military media. The Japanese media barely paid attention, if they did at all. These stories didn’t match their idea of what American servicemembers act like.

    One incident in particular stands out for me. In January 2006 an American sailor robbed and murdered a Japanese woman. This generated huge interest internationally. The crew of the ship the sailor belonged to went out into town and cleaned up some streets as a gesture of goodwill, and a Navy journalist took a photo of the group with all the bags of trash they had collected. We released the photo to the base paper, Stars & Stripes and the Japanese dailies. The Japanese right away pointed out that several of the black men in the group were making gang signs, and said this proved the American military is lousy with criminals.

    So, not only was this effort phony, it was doomed (and the gangbanger wannabes in the photo were hammered into the ground by their commanders, of course). I don’t see how picking up trash that Americans littered in the first place is making amends for a killing. And the photo goof only made things worse. In the end, our admiral made a public formal apology to the victim’s family and the murderer is doing life in a Japanese prison. The US-Japan alliance, the joint training and operations, which otherwise make for compelling responsibility (especially given the actions of China and North Korea at the time), looked more like an imperial power having its way with a client-state.

  4. dsmith says:

    I too take part in your confusion. Too much CSR seems phony and ulterior motivated, while no CSR whatsoever appears self focused. I think this topic needs to be approached with the ethics and knowledge we have been taught in many Cronkite classes. CSR efforts should be assessed by their relevance to the organization and authenticity. I find it interesting how 55 percent of CEO’s believe that social impact is more valuable to their companies than business benefits. I of course agree that social responsibility is more important but I am coming for a public relations background. You would think a CEO would be more business and revenue driven. Maybe they have learned better after a year of untrustworthy public perceptions toward the CEO’s of many organizations.

  5. tburns says:

    In regards to dolson’s comment, I wonder how vast the difference is between American and Japanese media and PR. In your point that the Japanese were quick to point to an incident and say “This is so typical Americana,” I have to ask if Americans do anything that different.

    My thesis I’m writing right now concerns the media coverage of the Darfur conflict. I have read many books and sources that claim that even though American media tries to be neutral and unbiased, a lot of bias does get reported without anyone knowing it or intending to do so. In using specific words/terms and not knowing the background of a certain culture’s history and present, often assumptions are made and certain stereotypes are preserved. Often they are preserved through words that carry a lot of associations or emphasis is placed on certain opinions and aspects of a conflict that do not represent the whole problem.

    As for dsmith’s comment, I have to agree that the approach to promoting CSR should follow the guidelines of anything else that happens in the company. If it is not relevant or sincere, do not feature it. I think it might become a little bit trickier, though, when it comes to running a campaign. If a specific group is to be targeted and CSR promotion is the key, I am scared that is when CSR might be taken advantage of and used for ulterior motives that destroy the sentiment of “good will.”

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