PR Insider: Making CSR Success Part of Your Company’s DNA

Larry Parnell

Lawrence J. Parnell

If your company does a great one-time CSR effort but doesn’t weave it throughout the company year-round, it’s a lost opportunity. This was the message from two leading experts in the field of CSR during lively conversations with our PR graduate students recently. 

According to Corey du Browa, SVP Global Communications and International Public Affairs at Starbucks, and Joe Sibilia, CEO at CSRwire, social responsibility and sustainability belong in the core DNA of a company, not as stand-alone initiatives, 

Dr. Janis Page

Dr. Janis Page

The pair spoke to our online students from across the US and around the globe recently during live webinars hosted by the Strategic Public Relations (SPR) master’s program at George Washington University.

“Building social consciousness into an organization starts with a very comprehensive audit of the operations, supply chain, and governance” recommended Sibilia, “… and it then must be incorporated into all aspects of the company’s operations.”

To be meaningful to all stakeholders, and thus have staying power, CSR must be aligned with the core business and products of the company. This is the best way to create a genuine socially responsible brand, he noted.

“When companies become authentically socially responsible,” Sibilia explained, “they can communicate it transparently and broadly without fear of being accused of boasting or misrepresenting themselves, or of losing control of their message.”

Any list of examples of authentic CSR certainly must include CVS – for its trend setting decision to stop selling tobacco - and of course Starbucks, which has long been viewed as a leader in this area. However, while there are many good actors operating in this space there are far too many who do not grasp the need to pick issues and activities that are authentic and will stick over time.

Our research into this area demonstrates the key is connecting the CSR activity to the basic business of your company – so that it resonates with your key shareholders: employees and consumers; government and NGOs; competitors and industry peers. Jumping on a bandwagon with “me too” campaigns is doomed to falter and eventually fail.

Starbucks’ approach, duBrowa noted, is about integrating CSR principles and practices throughout the organization, and communicating it within its core brand message to the external markets.

“We talk about our values and founding principles, not about CSR specifically,” said duBrowa, “because we don’t see CSR initiatives as something separate from who we are as a company. These are behaviors that are woven through our entire culture.”

Both experts agreed that companies can successfully balance profitability and a social conscience.

With Starbucks, their core mission of enacting positive change within communities gave them the leeway to introduce some bold ideas during the recent fiscal crisis—like the Create Jobs initiative to help drive the US economy.

“The benefits are mutual,” said duBrowa. “By helping the communities we serve, we certainly see the benefits for Starbucks as well. We know that people want to support companies with values that match their own.”

Where is CSR communication headed? CSRwire’s Sibilia sees great promise in social media, especially the usefulness of CSR Twitter chats to connect stakeholders with organizations. He also foresees more transparency through voluntary disclosure. “It’s proven to increase both corporate credibility and shareholder value,” he concluded.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Social responsibility and sustainability belong in the core DNA of a company, not as stand-alone initiatives.
  • When CSR becomes aligned with the core business and products, a genuine socially responsible brand is created.
  • An authentically socially responsible company can communicate its CSR efforts transparently without fear of boasting, misrepresenting, or losing control of the message.
  • More transparency through voluntary disclosure benefits organizations; it's proven to increase both corporate credibility and shareholder value.
  • Companies can successfully balance profitability and a social conscience.
  • Helping the communities served by an organization benefits the organization as well because people want to support companies with values that match their own.

Lawrence J. Parnell is an Associate Professor and Program Director of the Masters in Strategic PR at GWU ( and Dr. Janis Page is an adjunct instructor in the school’s online degree program. Follow Larry: @GWPRmasters.

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