Research studies have reported that an individual’s willingness to buy, recommend, work for, and invest in a company is directly related to the organization’s reputation – which incidentally is significantly influenced by the corporate social responsibility (CSR) actions taken by the firm. According to theRepTrak™ Pulse which measures corporate reputation of organizations three of the seven dimensions of reputation are related to CSR. Not just that, a majority of stakeholders are confused about what organizations do with CSR and therefore aren’t sure how to make sense of the reputation. That puts the onus on organizations to communicate effectively and support stakeholders in making sense of their intentions.
On October 31st I had the opportunity to participate in an engaging dialogue on ‘Integrating CSR With the Brand Strategy’. Communicators, marketers and CSR practitioners debated the merits and downsides of highlighting CSR for the brand.
Here are my perspectives on this subject.
- There is a strong linkage between CSR and reputation and ignoring this phenomenon is a missed opportunity. Many feel that doing good work and not talking about it is the right approach. My take is that if you do good work the word will spread even if you want to keep it under wraps. The best channel is within and your own employees are your most authentic advocates. Nothing can be beat authenticity and transparency when it comes to CSR.
- CSR communication is a lot to do with culture. In parts like India where service is expected to be done without much fanfare, communicating about your CSR work can seem like publicity and self-promotion. There shouldn’t be any Lakshman Rekha (line of control) for CSR communication. It is important to communicate the why and the how rather than just that the ‘what’ for CSR.
- Organizations can’t suddenly gain CSR consciousness – one of the panellists mentioned how a friend of his on joining a start-up was asked to do CSR because it was now the ‘buzz’ and they also needed to get funding and look ‘good’ in front of investors. If CSR is in your DNA it will come across as credible. If you fake it chances are that people will notice and you may not be able to sustain it in the long run. Get CSR into everyday life – add it to your performance measures, remind employees what they can do more, encourage their individual commitment for the causes they support in their personal capacity and inculcate a habit of giving.
- With the 2% CSR guidelines coming into play in India many organizations are now housing CSR functions under their Corporate Communication or Marketing divisions. The role of the marketer/communicator is beginning to evolve. They now need to gain a better understanding of the function, engage stakeholders beyond the usual remit, demonstrate abilities to negotiate, partner, influence, involve and tell stories in ways that matter for the brand.
- To amplify CSR communication the organization needs to make the effort visible and connect with audiences in meaningful ways. Message content is as important as the channel. If the focus is on commitment, impact and fit the communication will be well received and valued. The key point is to overcome stakeholder skepticism that the communication isn’t about ‘selling’ and more about explaining the context, consistency and durability of the CSR work. CSR communication should be factual to avoid being labelled as ‘bragging’. You can include CSR in almost any channel or avenue – packaging, campus branding, alumni communication, vendor engagement, third party endorsements among others. Word of mouth is the most effective approach to get the message around. Social media is crucial for the success of CSR although it needs to be employee led and less by the corporate communication team. Research studies have demonstrated that the reach of social media posts by employees is 8X times those of corporate accounts.
- Many organizations do cause related branding and marketing and the trend is shifting towards CSR communication. In my view, cause branding is temporary and short term while CSR communication has long term value and impact. There is also skepticism associated with cause branding because there is usually a direct profit associated with the cause and effect for the brand (i.e., every sale is associated with a portion of funds going to charity etc). The fit and the value must be very closely integrated for the cause to be accepted by customers. Also with many companies now associating with causes to further their brands fatigue sets in quickly. Brands can’t be built overnight on CSR. It either needs to be in the DNA or it will never be perceived as authentic. There are 3 strategies which research points out – stakeholder information, response and involvement. Involvement is the most evolved strategy since it is about co-creating the outcomes.
Overall, helping stakeholders appreciate your firm’s corporate social responsibility intent and practices has a lot to do with how, when and what you communicate.