CSR Warning: Ensure You Don’t Exploit Your Storytellers

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Allison Steinberg, ACLU
Allison Steinberg, ACLU

Sometimes drawing attention to an important issue involves telling a sad story (think of Sarah McLachlan breaking our hearts over the plight of abused animals). Your CSR efforts might include helping the less fortunate—the disabled, the poor, the homeless, the addicted—and if they do, you deserve to be commended. But raising awareness about such issues can be tricky, especially if you are telling your story through real individuals.

Have you thought through the implications of using somebody's name, face, voice and words in your communications? They're about to be the subject of a lot of attention; is it always going to be the right kind of attention? Could there be a backlash you didn't anticipate? Even if your CSR efforts don't result in any negative outcomes for your storyteller, they could still end up reflecting poorly on you if the whole thing comes across as somewhat exploitative.

Allison Steinberg, a communications strategist at ACLU, provides a lot of food for thought about this issue in PR News' CSR & Green PR Guidebook. Excerpted here, her main tips for ensuring that you don't exploit your storytellers:

  1. Follow their lead: Take your cues about how much to share from the comfort level of your storytellers. Don’t push them to do more than they feel open to sharing.

  2. When you’re not sure, ask: Don’t assume you shouldn’t include identifying details or refrain from asking certain questions. Err on the side of caution externally, but don’t be afraid to ask the person whose story you’re sharing and proceed accordingly.

  3. Gut check: If something doesn’t feel right to you, then don’t include it. There’s a reason your senses are warning you there might be a red flag.

  4. Talk to others: If you’ve never worked with a survivor of domestic violence, talk to someone who has and find out what the appropriate approach is, including what language to use and what to watch, what questions are OK to ask and which aren’t.

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