The CSR Road Map: Navigating Through Uncharted Territory

For many companies, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is still a vast and unknown dimension. How do you approach it from both a business and a good-works perspective? How, in a world full of significant needs and worthy causes, do you address just one issue? And how do you get the rest of the C-suite on board? They are provocative questions without easy answers, but three Cone Communications executives - vice presidents Alison DaSilva and Alana Schmitt Burns, and senior associate Mindy Gomes-Casseres - addressed them in a PR News Webinar January 25, with a concise roadmap for crossing into the unknown. When broaching the prospect of CSR initiatives, don't think in terms of a leap of faith; there are six clear-cut steps for making each effort effective for the community and the bottom line: Create a Cross-functional Team. This includes a combination of high-level executives from each department in the corporation: HR, public affairs, legal, marketing, etc. CEO support is also essential. "These individuals need to be high level so they can influence both operational and communications strategy," Gomes-Casseres says. "And PR [executives] should get in on the ground floor of discussions, because they provide value content-wise and strategy-wise." Measure Current Performance. "Metrics are planned along the triple bottom line perspective," Gomes-Casseres continues, referring to the social-economic-environmental trifecta. Measurement takes place within these categories and addresses the impact they have within the corporation and its industry. Conduct Stakeholder and Key Issues Assessments. It is important to note that when PR practitioners assess their stakeholders, they must understand how each individual group perceives the company and then engage them individually. For example, Starbucks issues a CSR report for stakeholders (like investors) and also boils down the data into succinct, reader-friendly pamphlets that can be easily handled and read by customers waiting at the coffee counter. In terms of key issues, it is easier to determine which ones a corporation or industry can impact most effectively. Oil and gas conglomerate BP took the lead in an industry known for its detrimental effects on the environment and narrowed in on that specific cause, purchasing a solar power business and investing in carbon dioxide reduction. It also changed its acronym from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum, illustrating the effect CSR can have on the brand as a whole. Nike, on the other hand, invests its social responsibility efforts in human rights and labor issues, doing a complete about face after its sweatshop indiscretions of the 1990s. Determine Operational Strategies and Goals. Once an issue is decided upon, PR managers must help outline the plan of attack. This is the step in which the CSR initiative itself is launched. Choose the commitment, the end goal and the timeframe necessary to achieve it. Then determine the steps needed to get from point A to point B. Once this game plan has been firmed up, learn to love it, because there's no turning back. Agree on the Level of Transparency. This step could be a PR manager's best friend or worst nightmare. Stakeholder groups are the toughest critics, and if the business model behind a company's CSR strategy isn't kosher, it will become public knowledge sooner or later. Then crisis management and crisis communications fall into the hands of PR executives who must explain why said strategy wasn't squeaky clean; thus, all executives must be on the same page from day one. According to DaSilva, transparency is always a best practice and Nike is a sterling example of this. The company's poor reputation during the 1990s for producing shoes in sweatshops hurt more than just their sales; the brand became the archetypal example of corporate America's abuses of the global economy. But a decade later, transparent practices throughout the business have all but reversed the stigma's ill effects. Consumers and investors have come to trust the brand as a leader, in both human rights activism and, of course, shoes. Create an Integrated Communications Strategy. This step revolves around creating overarching business and communications objectives; developing targeted objectives and strategies per stakeholder; developing tailored messages per stakeholder; and executing and measuring these strategies and messages. The communications strategy must be integrated across consumers (through media relations), NGOs (through one-on-one meetings and partnerships), employees (through volunteer opportunities and internal newsletters) and SRI funds (through GRI reports and SRI applications). "If you are doing CSR right, every aspect of the company will have something invested," Burns says. "Make the value of corporate responsibility so engrained that everyone is working toward it to build the brand's value." Contacts: Alison DaSilva,; Alana Schmitt Burns,; Mindy Gomes-Casseres, You can purchase the webinar proceedings at:

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