Unravelling CSR from Spin

PR and spin are, unfortunately, synonymous in many minds. But, as any professional communicator will tell you, spin is about quick fixes and short term solutions: PR is focused on long-term reputation management. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) seems to suffer from much the same image problem. CSR is variously dismissed as an unnecessary distraction from the main business of business, or a handy marketing tool that helps divert attention from less than desirable business practices.

Cynics who see too much ‘greenwash' in corporate social responsibility may well have good reason to be suspicious about the motives behind CSR's rise up the corporate agenda. Many organisations embark on poorly thought-out, short term projects that end up doing more harm than good, or make all the right noises, but fail to put words into action.

But these organisations are misunderstanding the reality of corporate social responsibility. Simply put, best practice CSR is driven by a belief that an organisation's viability depends on the goodwill of its stakeholders: employees, government, shareholders, suppliers, customers, media and the local community.

Winning support for organisational objectives means understanding stakeholder expectations and concerns, and finding ‘best-fit' solutions to meet the complex, and often competing, needs within and outwith the organisation.

In practice, it means building relationships, consulting, and communicating with honesty and transparency - the essence of best practice PR. And if you're not persuaded by this vision of CSR, perhaps I can convince you by using another public relations term...reputation management.

Because, when properly practiced, CSR doesn't just benefit stakeholders: it also protects the bottom line. There's plenty of evidence to indicate that acting responsibly and being profitable aren't mutually exclusive. In research carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers amongst 1,000 CEOs, 79% said that CSR is vital to the profitability of any organisation. The Work Foundation has identified a strong correlation between CSR activities and enhanced productivity and profitability. MORI research indicates that employees in companies that prioritise CSR regard their employers more favourably than those in organisations where responsible corporate behaviour has a lower priority.

Putting responsible corporate behaviour at the heart of strategic management helps to engage customers, attract and retain employees, and improve stakeholder value. And the processes a company goes through when acting responsibly - engaging in dialogue, assessing impacts and building relationships - help it to understand the issues, manage risks and protect its most valuable asset: its reputation.

It's this link between CSR, risk management and reputation that has prompted forthcoming legislation requiring large companies to produce, alongside the usual financial report, an Operating and Financial Review. The aim of the OFR is to give investors a broader picture of organisational culture, management and strategies than the annual report and accounts possibly can. Although the new legislation will initially only apply to larger companies, it's likely that SMEs and other organisations will face similar reputation reporting expectations before long.

CSR is more ‘need to do' than ‘nice to do', but unless responsible behaviour and stakeholder dialogue are embedded in corporate culture and drive organisational decision making, neither the company nor its stakeholders will see the true benefits.

Stakeholders are increasingly sophisticated and cynical about corporate spin and are quick to look behind the glossy CSR report. Any attempt to win brownie points through a superficial approach to corporate responsibility can easily result in more damage than good. For CSR to be effective, organisations must dispense with the marketing spiel and incorporate responsible thinking and behaviour into their strategy and culture, finding ways to transform words into action with public relations mediating between the various stakeholder groups.

Author:.

Co-founder of training firm, Mission International Ltd, Justin is a sought after coach, teacher and trainer. Justin delivers interactive workshops globally for corporate and not-for-profit organizations. This includes team development, leadership and communications training for Europe's best business school, HEC Paris, Invesco and VMware.

He has collaborated on significant published research in the field of human systems. Justin counsels with senior executives at organizations including the ...

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