Optimizing Your Relationship with a CSR Consultant

For all communication professionals, the emergence of corporate social responsibility as a modus operandi is great news. It is an ideal opportunity for communicators to grab hold of a portfolio that is certain to get more attention at the executive table. If you are considering seeking the expert advice of a CSR consultant, here are a few tips and things to consider to help you with this challenge:

1.    Understand your motivation.
Are you trying to develop a corporate-wide policy on sustainable development, or trying to solve a specific environmental issue? Do you fear your brand is at stake and risk management is a priority? Has your organization been part of the CSR movement for some time and simply needs to get the good word out? Perhaps your board has determined that you need to spearhead a long-term strategic CSR plan, but the task is overwhelming. Your main reasons for consulting an expert should guide your choice of service provider.

2.    Determine the basic scope.
There is the turnkey approach where the consultant will accompany you from beginning to end. Alternatively, you might decide to tackle one specific environmental issue and look after the communication yourself. Finally, you could strike a CSR committee to determine the top CSR priorities, then work with a consultant to elaborate the management process. 

3.    Make sure your key players are on board.
Most CSR consultants agree a CSR plan created in isolation is doomed to fail. A clear statement from the top defining the organization’s CSR commitment is a must to launch the process internally and give it the credibility it needs to thrive. Of course, ongoing support from the executive level is necessary to keep the momentum going.

4.    Get informed.
Read up on CSR issues, reports and performance indicators. Be ready to give examples of what your competition is doing to become sustainable. Have a few best practices ready to throw in the ring. A few well-rounded sites include:
➢    Word Business Council for Sustainable Development (http://www.wbcsd.org/)
➢    Business and Sustainable Development (http://www.bsdglobal.com/)
➢    Global Reporting Initiative (http://www.globalreporting.org/Home)
➢    Worldwatch Institute (http://www.worldwatch.org)

5.    Gather internal knowledge.
Interview key personnel to get an accurate picture of where your organization stands on the issue of CSR and where it wants to go. If that’s not possible, be ready to pay the consultants to find out for you, as this information provides the foundation for a solid CSR culture.

6.    Understand the subtleties of communication in a sustainable environment. Communicators need to understand the difference between a sustainability brochure, a sustainability-focused annual report, and a Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) sustainability report. Be ready to make some changes to traditional non-sustainable design and printing. An annual report without several years of financial data, or a sustainability report without trend data on sustainability performance is just a brochure – not terribly credible in a CSR context.

Who’s doing what these days?
In the interest of simplifying matters, CSR consultants can be categorized as follows: the one-stop CSR shops, the environmental consultants and the vertical (or specialized) experts.

CSR one-stop-shop
CSR – or sustainable development consultants are dedicated to helping organizations strive for sustainability from beginning to end. The good ones will help you leverage those sustainable practices as a strategic differentiator and a means to achieve greater business value.

Some CSR consultants will have technical experts in-house, while others outsource mandates that require specific training, such as LEED certification and the measurement of greenhouse gas emissions.

How they can help: Strategic sustainable development planning, stakeholder engagement, eco-efficiency evaluation and planning, corporate reporting, etc.

Environmental Consultants
These experts help their clients assess and manage environmental issues associated with their products and activities with a view to reducing their environmental impact and improving their economic performance.

While some environmental consultants offer peripheral services such as communication planning, most focus on the life cycle management of products with a cradle-to-cradle approach.

How they can help: Air quality and/or carbon management, energy & environmental technology, risk assessment and management, etc.

Vertical Experts
These specialized consultants focus their activities on a specific aspect of sustainable development such as green marketing or eco-conception.

How they can help: CSR reporting, public relations, green special events management, etc.

How to Choose the Right One
Consider the following when choosing the consultant that is right for you:

1.    Communication expertise. If you decide on the one-stop-shop model, consider their communication skills. Communication expertise is a plus for a CSR consultant because of the importance of stakeholder management, sound internal messaging and ongoing communication.
2.    Experience. How long have they been in business? Do they have case studies to draw from? Are they known in the community?
3.    Processes & methodology. What is their general approach and methodology? Do they offer useful dashboards and management systems?
4.    Resources & tools. Do they have specific tools or products that could be of use to your organization? Do they provide value-added resources such as news feeds, newsletters, reports, etc.?
5.    Partnerships. What (if anything) do they outsource? Who are their subcontractors?

Decide on the attributes or services that are most important to you and your organization. Then, ask at least two consulting firms that have these attributes to meet your team and discuss how they would give life to your CSR vision.

Note: It is best to choose a consulting firm through a small committee so as to set the tone for a continuous fair and transparent process. Don’t forget to trust your instincts. Successful consultants are experts at building relationships. Trust, synergy and openness go a long way in establishing long-term and effective client-consultant relationships. 

You’ll know your consultant is doing a good job if they:

1.    Help you develop a CSR plan that has a vision with both short and long-term measurable objectives with solid performance indicators.

2.    Understand and respect your organization’s culture and develop a plan that is adapted to take advantage of its strengths and compensate for its weaknesses.

3.    Inspire your leader(s) to make bold actions.

4.    Believe your employees are your #1 key stakeholders.

5.    Avoid “hogwashing”. “Hogwashing” is to sustainable development what “greenwashing” is to environmental stewardship.

6.    Remind you of your transparency mandate and are not afraid to insist on talking about the bad and the ugly as well as the good.

7.    Fight the “tick-box” mentality (“okay we’ve done it, now let’s move to something else”) and strive for real change.

8.    Help you find examples of sustainable practices within your organization that transform into golden nuggets of information for your communication messages.

If you’re still not clear where to start or how a CSR consultant can help you as a communicator, here is a list of services CSR consultants can provide:

➢    CSR education, training and coaching;

➢    Engage business and non-business stakeholders;

➢    Guide the development of a code of ethics;

➢    Establish mechanisms to monitor corporate-wide sustainability performance indicators;

➢    Benchmark environmental and social performances;

➢    Assist with performance targets and developing subsequent action plan; and

➢    Develop and implement external communication strategies.

Working with a CSR consultant can be the boost your organization needs to guide it along a sustainable path. Do your homework, trust your instincts and take the plunge. It’s the right thing to do.

This article was written by Natalie Lavigne, senior partner at ecoverde, a consulting firm specializing in sustainable development based in Ontario, Canada. This piece is currently featured in PR News 2008 Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibilty, Volume 2. To order a copy or get more information, please visit http://www.prnewsonline.com/store/9.html