5 Ways to Bolster Your Corporate Social Responsibility Storytelling Effort

BY Maureen O’Connell, director, cone communications
Maureen O’Connell, director, cone communications

PR professionals need to develop corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs with messages that will differentiate their brand, demonstrate results and meet organizational goals. Whether you are proactive about telling your issues-driven story or reacting to consumer questions, clear language and compelling visuals are critical to executing effective, strategic communications. Here are five ways to help your brand articulate its CSR values and stand out from competitors.

1. Write provocative headlines. Retail brand Eileen Fisher offers the headline “No Excuses” in big, black, bold capital letters on its website. Using additional bold copy, the brand vows to be accountable for every decision it makes—“from the field to the factory to the landfill”—within the next five years as part of its sustainability plan, Vision 2020, which launched last March. The brand shows a transparent, vulnerable side by calling its plan sensible and “scary” and admitting that it won’t be easy to achieve.

More often than not, retail brands offer perfect images of gorgeous models wearing the latest fashions. Eileen Fisher flips this thinking by using a fashion model to acknowledge that sustainable fashion is not a “perfect picture.”

2. Turn complicated campaigns into clear communications. A video from Goldman Sachs about managing sewage overflow in Washington, D.C., is able to get its message across without even showing an overflowing city sewer. The video profiles the company’s investment deal to keep D.C. rivers clean with images that are bright, clean and hopeful, offering a positive vision to remedy the sewer overflow.

Posted on YouTube, the video avoids using sustainability jargon. The project’s benefits are discussed in simple words and displayed in soothing visuals featuring attractive neighborhoods.

3. Turn CSR reports into storytelling opportunities. About three-quarters of S&P 500 companies produce (CSR) reports, according to the Governance & Accountability Institute. The ROI is falling short, however. Research shows only 17 percent of Americans have read a CSR report in the last 12 months, according to the “2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study.” It’s not a surprise. CSR reports can be dry reading. Instead use short videos to convey a company’s plans and complement the traditional, printed CSR reports. For example, a video from GE explains the philosophy of its sustainability strategy and previews key elements of its printed report.

4. Showcase a potential human impact through statistics. When DEKA Research and Development engineered a water purifier with Coca-Cola, DEKA’s founder Dean Kamen avoided using mechanical explanations. Instead, he introduced the invention by sharing stats about the future of clean water and what it means for the world. For example, last June DEKA rolled out a documentary showcasing the urgency of creating clean water for developing countries and using statistics to convey various messages, such as “50 percent of all chronic human disease would go away and you could empty 50 percent of the world’s hospital beds, if you just gave people clean water.”

5. Go straight to the source. McDonald’s Canada was asked on social media if it uses ammonia on its beef. Jeff Kroll, the company’s senior VP for communications, decided to visit the scene of the alleged crime, using video to get his message across. With machines rolling and grinding behind him at a Cargill plant, Kroll showed consumers the inner workings of McDonald’s Canada’s burger-making process, assuring viewers that only 100 percent beef goes into the patties. The video was posted on YouTube in September 2012 and, so far, has racked up nearly 500,000 views.

Whether viewers like the video or not, however, the effort at transparency offers a real-time response with clear explanations and facts from a company expert involved in sustainability programs.

As professional storytellers, PR practitioners need to pack an emotional CSR punch that engages audiences instantly and gives them a call to action. This will require more creativity and less copy, as the world of communications heads toward fewer words and more visuals.

CONTACT: Maureen O’Connell is director at Cone Communications. She can be reached at moconnell@conecomm.com

This article originally appeared in the August 10, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.