That CSR has arrived as a key element in corporate communications is clear and unmistakable. The primary reason for this evolution is that CSR provides access into the inner sanctum of executive decision making—the proverbial “seat at the table.” CSR initiatives can boost sales, improve productivity, improve employee morale, enhance corporate reputation and support regulatory affairs and government relations efforts. Increasingly, CSR is developing credibility as a risk management strategy as well, especially in the high visibility manufacturing and natural resource industry segments.
So how do we as professionals make sure that our sustainability programs initiatives live up to this potential and have lasting value? Below we have listed some keys to success for new and existing CSR initiatives. These are based on our research at GW as well as insights and experience from the “real world.”
Keys to Success
1. Make sure the cause or activity you are embracing makes sense for your business. Put another way, is there a clear connection between the cause and your company’s business? Let’s consider one example: a high-end retailer announces that for every $100 spent in their store over a defined time frame, the company will pay for and install a mosquito net in Africa to prevent the spread of malaria. A great cause for sure, but what is the connection to their business, customers or employees here in the U.S.? Compare that to Cisco sponsoring after school/homework assistance to improve math and science competency in poor school districts. The connection is much clearer, as these skills are vital to the next generation of employees—as well as the future customers of Cisco.
2. Make sure your program is specific and measurable and not so ambiguous as to lack credibility. Take the multiple efforts underway to address childhood obesity: How many of them have a clear goal and a means by which progress is to be measured? Without such milestones, how do we know if they are making progress? How can we as consumers or stakeholders confidently make the decision to support them?
3. Ensure you allocate sufficient resources to support the initiative over the long term—not just for the press event that launches it. As PR professionals we are often guilty of launching a new initiative and then letting it drift off the agenda while we move on the next issue. Not only is this short sighted, it demeans our credibility and weakens the impact of other legitimate CSR efforts.
4. Consider the relevance of the cause to your employees and communicate it internally. Too often this critical stakeholder group is overlooked in planning and executing CSR programs. This is especially short sighted in companies where frontline staff is likely to be asked about the new initiative by your customers. PNC Bank’s “Grow up Great” focused one early childhood education, is a good example of engaging front line employees in a company wide effort. Also, it is often cited by employees in independent surveys on what makes them “proud” to work there.
5. Look for opportunities to engage your customers in CSR activity. The multiple benefits CSR provides—brand building, preferential purchasing and consumer loyalty among others—certainly support this tactic. Look at two of the most successful cause related efforts of recent years, American Express’s Member Project and the Pepsi Refresh project for example. They engage customers in decision making and build brand loyalty at the same time.
6. Pick the right nonprofit organization as your partner. This helps sustain the program and builds credibility. Conversely, affiliating with an event specific group (e.g. a local disaster relief group) vs. a national group like the Red Cross can leave you short of your goal. In this case, a CSR program actually creates ill will vs. the good will you were seeking when you started with the best intentions.
7. Get management’s buy-in—upfront if possible—to support the proposed effort with the resources required to do the job right. Getting management support will be a lot easier if you have touched the bases noted here before bringing a new CSR activity to their attention:
- Show a clear connection to the business;
- Identify key milestones;
- Identify the necessary resources; and
- Demonstrate the concept’s relevance to your employees and customers.
In doing so, you are well on your way to a successful and relevant CSR program and you will bolster the credibility of CSR initiatives for your fellow communications professionals. As Martha Stewart would say: "That is a good thing."
Larry Parnell is an associate professor and program director for the Master's Degree in Strategic Public Relations at The George Washington University and teaches a course on CSR strategy. He is also a member of the PR News Advisory Board and an independent communications consultant. Larry can be reached at email@example.com.