Corporate CSR Journey: From Uncharted Territory to Roadmap

Corporate social responsibility is one of two areas in which public relations can lead rather than support an organization. This gives us the opportunity to contribute directly to the bottom line success of our companies while elevating our profession. As CSR is still in the organizational stages within the vast majority of corporations, public relations can help determine the best use of corporate resources and where CSR fits into corporate priorities.

Following is intended as a roadmap to help you lead your company to form its CSR identity, strategies and tactics.

Step One: Assess your company’s internal and external environment related to CSR
Whether formally or informally, qualitatively or quantitatively, you must measure the CSR opinions of external and internal stakeholders before you can prioritize the areas you will engage in programmatically and from a communication standpoint. You need to know where you have the best chances of standing out.

For both external and internal environment indications, keep a log of the inquiries you get from media, clients, employees and executives. Categorize the topics they’re interested in, their specific inquiries and requests and every month or so, tally the results. These should tell you not only the topics your key stakeholders are interested in, but also the level of interest they have in the topics, as well as scope (niche vs. general/mainstream, regional, national or global).

While you have their attention, deepen the information you get by asking their opinions of specific topics and the CSR landscape in general.

You can perform these daily analyses on your own. To enhance, ask your communication, marketing or CSR agency to conduct an external environmental audit, or to start, a more topline competitor and media analysis. Identify four or more companies (competitors and/or companies with similar characteristics to yours) and report how they compare to your company in terms of CSR positioning, programs, stated mission and goals, awards and distinctions and media coverage.

Internally, you can use an online survey tool easily administered through your intranet. Your research universe is comprised of managers, sales and operations employees, who are in leadership roles, are close to customers, speak and interact publicly on behalf of the company and are central to sales efforts.

Step Two – Plot your journey, topically.
Don’t try to be all things to all stakeholders.

From the research, you should find that in some areas, your company already leads; in others, you’re even with competitors and in still others, you might have to catch up. This information can be weighed against criteria such as your company’s position in your industry, alignment with your company’s mission and values, feasibility of administering (budget is a factor here) interest of your executives and the services and products you provide. The key is to select a few topics and be prepared to do very well in those, rather than having marginal success in many areas. You can also plot your journey year by year, creating a list of priorities for this year, next year and in following years – building on the same topic areas, or adding more in time.

Step Three - Define your terms.
Keep in mind national and global audiences.

Global companies sometimes use the term “sustainable development” to refer to CSR overall. More common in the U.S. are “corporate responsibility,” “social responsibility,” “corporate social responsibility” and variations.  You must choose one term to use at least nationally – better if you’re in agreement globally for the most powerful branding and positioning platform for CSR.

Step Four – Organize internally.
Where will CSR live?

To be its most effective, CSR needs a specific home in your company, with a leader who has CSR as a primary responsibility. CSR can be included among the responsibilities of existing departments (such as public relations, corporate communication, strategy or marketing), or a new, separate department can be created. To decide, you need to understand the scope and specific duties you want from the function.

Since the decision requires budget, human resources and other considerations and could take time to finalize, you might consider an interim structure while you decide. This will help carve out some key program pieces, and move forward CSR simultaneous to the structure decision being made.

For example, you might convene a task force to focus on specific programs and products in which your company can take the lead in your industry.

Step Five– Earn operational buy in.
Begin making CSR part of daily tactics and longer term public relations strategy to increase the awareness among your key stakeholders that they have a key role in CSR.

Begin by adding CSR to public relations corporate and business line-specific strategic plans. Include CSR messaging on your Web site, in executive speeches, internal meetings, press kits and media interviews. Give people time to absorb these new stories and ways of thinking and keep at it. Small acts and large add up to making change. Remember, you’re the change agent.

Step Six – Strengthen alliances with third party endorser organizations, suppliers and vendors.
Enhance credibility and increase visibility.

Enhance the credibility of your company’s CSR strategy with the endorsements of noted third-party organizations relevant to your CSR areas. Select one to three organizations, and create program-related partnerships with them.  Apply for awards, earn the certifications they offer, have your company executives sit on their boards of directors and committees/task forces. Publicize your involvements everywhere from news releases to your Web site to speeches and presentations and sales materials – and of course, internally.

You can also enlist the partnership of your suppliers and vendors who share your CSR priorities. Think about co-branding sponsorships or communication efforts, sharing related research, media contacts and other valuable items, saving time and money and expanding the reach of each company’s messaging.

Step Seven – Take your show on the road!
Beginning with training of your teams and materials that provide messaging consistency, you are at this point poised to communicate about CSR and implement its programs. Be prepared for wildly positive reception to your new programs!

To communicate and operate as a company with CSR at your heart and to infiltrate the corporate culture with all the daily practices that go into building that corporate reputation you so crave, your frontline and management employees are your best vehicles. With that, it’s your responsibility and that of your corporate executive team to give them and everyone, the information and tools that create the CSR knowledge bank on which everyone will rely.

Training is key, and should be mandatory for employees most central to the effort. Much of it can be administered via your intranet as an online course, supplemented with in -person workshops or seminars – breakout sessions at company annual conferences and sales meetings work well.
Remember to stay true to your roadmap and keep sight of your ultimate destination.

This article was written by Jaya Koilpillai Bohlmann, vice president, public relations of Sodexho, Inc., an integrated food and facilities management services company in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It appears in the recently released PR News Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility, Volume 2. For more information, visit