Changing Face Of CSR: New Trends Redefine Doing Well By Doing Good


When the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef off the coast of Alaska in March of 1989 and subsequently spilled millions of gallons of oil into the waters, it quickly became a crisis of international proportions; more than that, it also sent environmentalism into a new stratosphere of corporate (and non-corporate) interest. Whether or not that tragedy was the bait for increased attention to environmentally sound business practices, it certainly kick-started a wave of corporate social responsibility (CSR)-themed initiatives and concerns throughout the business world. After all, $287 million in actual damages, $5 billion in punitive damages and 1,900 kilometers of affected coastline aren't numbers that can be brushed off easily. But now, nearly 20 years later, CSR is the crux of an evolution that will redefine the practice. Surveys are returning numbers and revealing findings that challenge the traditional "green-only" focus of CSR practices, and communications executives are taking note. According to Fleishman-Hillard's CSR blog (http://csrblog.fleishmanhillard.com), "There are many reasons why CSR is good business. The payoffs of CSR include stronger brand image reputation; improved employee recruitment, retention and morale; better customer satisfaction; increased shareholder value; and lower risk of boycotts and litigation." Not only is CSR taking new form when it comes to specific business outcomes, it also applies largely to the more intangible concept of corporate reputation and brand, and not on an environment- only scale. Specifically, more and more surveys are uncovering nontraditional CSR attributes, raising a series of key questions: When it comes to defining CSR, are employees the new environment? What role does technology play in CSR's new direction? Do demographics have an impact on companies' CSR initiatives? Do Employees Trump The Environment? In May of 2006, Fleishman-Hillard released a survey of 800 U.S. adults indicating that consumers are more inclined to define CSR in ways most relevant to them, and respondents defined CSR most frequently as how companies treat their employees. (See graph.) "More than half of Americans said the treatment of employees trumped everything else," says Tony Calandro, VP, Fleishman-Hillard St. Louis. "It does not mean that concern for the environment, charitable contributions and other areas are not important - they are. But, we asked Americans to state what was the most important to them, and treatment of employees mattered most to almost 50 percent of all Americans." This transition from largely environmental concerns to more subjective, personally relevant ones is a noteworthy trend, as companies would be ill-advised to disregard employees' wants and needs, and communications executives are often the liaison in terms of internal communications and employee relations. This new (or newly uncovered) CSR dimension of employee relations adds another layer to the PR/communications department's job. What's more, it's a dimension that works both ways: A study released by progressive community network Care2 shows that 48 percent of employees say they would work for less pay if they had an opportunity with a socially responsible company, and 40 percent said they would work longer hours. A study of 2,100 MBA students conducted by Net Impact also found that slightly more than half of respondents would accept a lower salary to work for a socially responsible company. Thus, while employees may appear to be more concerned with the personal impacts of CSR initiatives, a large population appears willing to make personal sacrifices in the name of CSR. "Communications execs should take a step back and analyze what types of messages their company is communicating to the public. Are different business units within a company sending conflicting messages? Is a company communicating its values?" Calandro asks. "In order to gain the maximum corporate enhancement opportunities a CSR program can provide to a company, CSR messages should be fully integrated throughout the company." Tech Strikes Again The Fleishman survey also shows findings on how the changing technology landscape is transforming the way consumers gather and communicate information on companies' social responsibility. Among the findings: 58 percent of respondents claim the Internet has made consumers more informed about companies' CSR; 47 percent have used the Internet to learn about the extent to which a company is socially responsible; and 63 percent want information available through new Internet tools These findings fall in line with the widely covered phenomena of new media's impact on business. However, they also impact the way PR professionals do their jobs, as communicating with constituents via new media platforms - blogs, podcasts, etc. - increases the pressures and loosens control surrounding message dissemination. Generation Y Has A Conscience After All It turns out that senior management and "vintage" consumers aren't the only ones who are catching on to the changing face of CSR; contrary to its MTV-watching, iPod-listening reputation, Generation Y is redefining itself as a group that is not only concerned with social responsibility, but also actually feels compelled to personally participate in it. A survey of 1,800 Gen Y-ers (people between the ages of 13 and 25) released by Boston-based Cone and AMP Insights found that: 61 percent agreed they are personally responsible for making a difference in the world; 78 percent think companies have the same responsibility; 75 percent are more likely to pay attention to a company's messages if it has a deep commitment to a cause; and Nearly 90 percent stated they are "likely" or "very likely" to switch from one brand to another based on a strong association with a good cause. With all this in mind, marketing and PR pros must find appropriate and targeted ways to bring their organizations' social responsibility initiatives to a specific - and very diverse - audience. The most important point is to make sure that all CSR programs are very brand-specific. In other words, donating loose change to any and all charitable organizations does nothing to bolster brand and reputation for a specific company; rather, it looks like a half-ditch effort to cross CSR off the to-to list, and young constituents are very perceptive to this subversive tactic. Perhaps PR execs don't need a slew of surveys to recognize CSR's changing tide, but it doesn't hurt to reemphasize new - and sometimes drastic - measures needed to make CSR an intrinsic characteristic of every corporation. It has an impact on the bottom line, on brand and reputation, and on employees' willingness to outperform competitors. Planting trees and writing checks alone won't cut it, and everyone, including CEOs and the notoriously tuned-out Generation Y, is taking note. After all, in the words of CSR archetype Ben & Jerry's founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, "When business starts using its voice for the benefit of the country as a whole, not just in its narrow self-interest, it can really be the force that can make the changes that need to be made." Contact: Tony Calandro, tony.calandro@fleishman.com

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