How to Communicate Your CSR Commitments

In the past, a few watchdogs may have kept close tabs on an organization; today that number has skyrocketed, with social networks monitoring, discussing and questioning the motives of deep-pocket companies that claim to be committed to socially responsible causes. There’s nowhere to hide, and that’s a good thing in a triple-bottom line era in which companies believe they can have a thriving business while also doing good in the community and for planet Earth. In fact, linking the three may create a sustainable business that best delivers long-term shareholder value. The emerging concept of purpose-based branding also aligns with this idea. Many organizations, however, struggle to balance social imperatives with business reality. The marketing department may rush to sell a green product even while the operations unit scrambles to source or certify its ingredients. Later, when it is discovered that claims made for the product cannot be supported, credibility disappears for the company, and for marketers in general. This is one reason the Federal Trade Commission is revising its green marketing guidelines—first issued more than 20 years ago. Situations like this fuel skeptics, blow through the blogosphere and color press perceptions. Since corporate brand equity is hard to build and easy to lose, can you really afford to communicate your social initiatives without bulletproof support? Of course not. Here are 10 steps to communicate CSR initiatives to your stakeholders: 1.    Define what CSR means to you. CSR can refer to a broad range of corporate programs, including community relations, contributions, environmental protection, sustainability, employee volunteerism and much more. Ensure there is clear understanding of what CSR means to C-level management so time isn’t wasted on low-priority initiatives. 2.    Make sure everyone’s on board. It may seem obvious, but once an organization defines a CSR focus, it is essential to ensure there is real commitment. Skeptics thrive because too many companies fail to walk the talk. Casting one-offs as accomplishments provides skeptics with ample opportunity to question your commitment. Ensure you have an approved CSR strategy and plan under way before telling your story. 3.    Clearly define audiences. Know which stakeholders are most important to embrace your CSR programs. Identify friends and foes, allies and critics, third-party supporters and naysayers, and prioritize these audiences with a targeted communications plan for each. 4.    Start with employees. Educate them, enroll them and make them ambassadors and spokespeople for your commitment and your accomplishments. Do so before communicating externally. 5.    Find thought leaders. Identify third parties who will support you and speak on your behalf. True skeptics are not likely to take your word for it. Whom do the skeptics trust and turn to for information? 6.    Speak on their terms. A huge challenge in communicating with skeptics and allies is to identify the best channels to connect their terms. Where do your targets go for information and which media do they trust? Traditional approaches still have a place in your plan, but the vast majority of influentials go online for information. If you are not an expert on social media, turn to experts at agencies with this expertise. 7.    Actions speak loudest. Unless you have actual proof points to match your intentions, your skeptics will continue to be disbelievers. 8.    Under-promise, over-deliver. Moderate claims and expectations among stakeholders, then surprise them by doing more. 9.    Carefully steward your work. Annual CSR reports are a good idea, if only because they force organizations to review progress made against CSR objectives. If you do a report, define early on how it will be used and distributed. 10. Measure, measure, measure. First, measure the awareness, opinions and attitudes of stakeholders toward your organization and its commitments to know where you stand or if issues need to be addressed. Define goals and objectives as part of the strategic plan and set specific measures for each of these goals and objectives. CSR is becoming an integral component in company business strategies—and public relations practitioners are at its heart. Use this opportunity to help drive value for your company, your community and for future generations. PRN   Contacts: This article was written by Rick Miller, president of Northlich’s PR practice, and Bill Dobson, a senior counselor at the firm. Miller can be reached at

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