Prepping the CEO for a Charitable-Minded B-to-B PR Initiative

More and more business-to-business organizations are launching new products and services with a dual mission: to be profitable while serving a greater humanitarian purpose. It’s no surprise. Just as business-to-business marketers have adapted use of the Internet and social media for their own b-to-b objectives, they are increasingly developing strong bonds with customers and strengthening their brands by designating a portion of profits to a cause. Perhaps they’ve learned what Self magazine confirmed in a December 2007 ‘Good’ study: Customers are willing to pay a premium (an average 6.1 percent more) for products that they perceive as doing good. 

Or they may be following the advice of corporate social responsibility gurus such as David Grayson, who preaches that “corporate responsibility has to cease being a bolt-on to business operations, and instead be built-in to business purpose and strategy.” Grayson says doing so “involves a clear link to business values and culture and strong leadership from the top.”

The socially responsible company is wearing its collective heart on its sleeve, broadcasting its values and making an unwavering commitment to a cause. To take such a firm stand requires a CEO who can communicate the commitment, credibility and passion to improve lives while increasing profits. 

Establishing credibility in a crowded marketplace is a challenge for any PR initiative, and requires third-party validation from happy customers, impressed critics or satisfied partners. However, companies that link their business models to social responsibility must also demonstrate a commitment to doing good in order to be taken seriously, and the CEO personifies that commitment.

The Chinese have a saying: “The fish rots from the head down.” For socially responsible organizations, the opposite applies; a corporation shines and prospers from the top down, and corporate motives will be viewed as credible if the CEO’s motives are true.

The CEO must convey honesty, sincerity, ironclad values and ethics through words and deeds. This person must embrace transparency and understand the needs of customers and the marketplace while delivering messages that are genuine and appeal to customers’ altruistic instincts.

It’s a balancing act that most executives are not required to perform, but it’s one at which the CEO must excel to convince key audiences that an organization’s philanthropic mission is not just a gimmick. By announcing one’s intentions to do well by doing good, a CEO is inviting scrutiny that other C-suite occupants may not receive. So preparing the chief executive for the types of inquiries that may come is the first step to any successful b-to-b PR program.

Phase I—Expect suspicion
By nature, reporters are suspicious of any company or person claiming to donate corporate profits to help humanity. They may examine the CEO’s past to look for incidents that may contradict one’s business or personal mission. To establish credibility, they will expect proof that the CEO has a lifelong commitment to donating to charitable causes as well as a history of honorable dealings, both in business and personally.

Preparing the CEO for this initiative will require a significant commitment of time and willingness to reveal information about his or her career, experiences, personality and values. The CEO should be prepared to share information about his or her upbringing and past experiences, past lawsuits, investigations, disgruntled employees, defective products or even divorces.

They’ll also want to know about the CEO’s membership in organizations, movements and associations, and they may even try to dig deeper with probing questions into the CEO’s psyche, such as “What drives and motivates you?”

Remember that honesty and transparency are important to establishing credibility with key audiences, so develop and rehearse responses to questions so the CEO can speak with candor and conviction about personal and professional experiences.

Phase II—Message consistency
Everyone in the organization from the CEO on down must follow the same play list with a unified message to ensure consistency to all internal and external audiences: customers, employees, shareholders, partners and the media.

Since these messages address how the organization fills a unique marketplace need while serving the greater good of society, it’s important that key executives and staffers from all levels of the organization contribute to the “message bible.” While it may not be necessary for everyone to attend a messaging workshop, it’s important to seek input from a cross-section of top stakeholders before the company’s draft messages become final.

Phase III—Prepping for the media interview
Preparation breeds confidence, which is critical during any interview. Research the reporter and his or her stories in print. Develop a list of possible questions and rehearse the answers to be certain that the CEO’s answers include key messages that are consistent and meet the business goals of the interview. Ask the CEO to envision how the headline and his or her quote will appear in print.

Phase IV—Execution
The initial goal is to generate awareness of a product or service by promoting the company, its offering and its philanthropic mission. Launching a b-to-b company with a humanitarian mission will make your firm stand out, so emphasize the organization’s points of differentiation.

The Human Element
Since your company’s philanthropic goals may be met with skepticism, humanize your intent by relying on testimony of individuals and organizations that have benefitted or will benefit from the organization’s giving. Seek out testimonials from well-known industry leaders who can lend credibility to your efforts.

Since the PR focus is the b-to-b marketplace, develop a media relations program targeting business reporters and editors at major market daily newspapers as well as the trade magazines that cover your organization’s industry.

Thought Leadership
Identify and secure speaking opportunities at events and trade shows to demonstrate the CEO’s thought leadership and experience in developing a profitable business model with a humanitarian purpose. Offer to have the CEO participate in panels or workshops where your company’s products or services can be demonstrated or discussed.

Having the CEO author a blog is another strong thought leadership tool that helps spread the company message through social media and invites customers, partners and other interested parties to share their passions through a dialogue.

It’s that dialogue that takes place online and offline that strengthens the link between the CEO and the corporation and establishes the credibility needed to attract audiences who are committed to the brand AND the cause. 

When it comes down to it, credibility at all levels of the organization is vital to a company’s success. In the b-to-b realm, where purchase decisions are often long and considered, this credibility is even more important. When trying to integrate social responsibility into the brand’s fabric, a credible CEO, combined with a clear, strategic PR approach, will help both the organization and the humanitarian cause it is trying to serve.

This article was written by Michelle Damico, vice president, public relations for Slack Barshinger, an integrated marketing communications agency that works exclusively with business-to-business marketers. It was excerpted from the PR News Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility, Volume 2. To order a copy, visit the