Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Takes Leadership

Early in November, Business for Social Responsibility, an association of approximately 250 member companies that works to develop more sustainable ways to do business, drew 1,300 leaders and managers from 50 countries representing companies, nonprofits, consulting firms, PR shops and government agencies to its annual conference. Plenary speaker, General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, officially declared, “Corporate social responsibility and sustainability is core to running the business.” This pronouncement represents a growing acceptance by influential CEOs for embedding CSR and sustainability into economic actions and business planning.

General Electric is not alone in embracing CSR and sustainability. Says Shin Bae Kim, President and CEO, SK Telecom, “Today’s consumers want to solicit companies that are adept at CSR and sustainability and that is why I see CSR as the completion of customer service management.”

Of course, the adaptation of CSR and sustainability into corporate strategy has resounding implications for both PR and marketing executives charged with managing brands and identities and communicating the company’s role and actions on crosscutting issues about the environment and society.

Because there is no real consensus yet for what “green” really means, PR and marketing communications execs face a challenge communicating a company’s CSR and sustainability actions. This confusion is echoed by Joel Makower, co-founder and chairman of Greener World Media, who says (ironically enough given his company’s moniker), “We don’t know how green is green enough.” 

It’s critical that PR or marketing professionals ensure that their CEO understands the “Is it green enough?” issue. Combined with reputational value and trust, “green enough” is important for companies to assimilate in today’s floundering economy alongside rising environmental concerns with climate change and gas prices. However, when it comes to green we may actually mean sustainability.

According to the 2008 Edelman Trust Barometer, only 20% trust corporate or product advertising. In this vein, it’s important to distinguish how CSR communications diverge from traditional PR to be able to improve on public trust about CSR issues. With CSR communications, the back-story that deals with the struggle for progress must come across for authenticity and not appear disingenuous.

Though it may seem counterintuitive to consider a public confession, it is the CSR and PR department’s job to get the CEO and corporate counsel comfortable with discussing tough issues and being straightforward when portraying them to the people who want to know the information.  Leveraging the approach of CSR communications to describe a company’s role in dealing with CSR issues and not just the presentation of a happy corporate face, helps to lend legitimacy with skeptics. Often, this means revealing the difficult trade-offs on tough issues, and the attempts to try and solve them. Getting greener takes CSR leaders.

How to lead at CSR and maintain focus:

â–º Cross-manage: Integrate and ground communications, marketing and PR staffers to work on CSR and sustainability-defining priorities together. Doing so better ensures there is substance behind CSR messages and interlinking on crosscutting issues or on statements for check and balance.

â–ºSubstantiate: Do not position the company by making blanket statements of “we’re green” or “we’re going green.” This comes across as inexact and overstated. Be targeted with your messages and specific with your actions.

â–º Train: Prepare your CEO to answer tough questions on CSR and sustainability. Avoid having to get a green message out before facts are gathered or strategic planning takes place. You also want to obtain feedback on CSR issues among employees in town hall meetings as well as update them on CSR activities—and form green teams.

â–º Lead: Take the initiative to suggest to your CEO an investment in a CSR report and/or to refine your existing CSR report to reflect real benchmarking and not simply branding. Companies that put concrete information into the public sphere are being responsive to the market demands for scrutiny about what they are doing and why with detailed and audited CSR reporting.

â–º Be Consistent: With consistent CSR and sustainability, walk the talk, and talk the walk. 

â–º Go beyond: Adopt a range of media beyond the CSR report to communicate on CSR.

Most Fortune 500 companies today go beyond the CSR report to communicate about CSR and sustainability on their corporate Web sites. For instance, British Telecom has a Web site devoted to carbon dioxide emissions reductions and climate change. Unilever has a hot link for CSR Analysts, while Timberland posts and cross-links online quarterly podcast reports on 15 key CSR performance indicators. Despite these various forms of communications vehicles and tactics, it can still be difficult to prevent your company from green bashing.
Given the complexity, a company needs to be clear, concrete, and consistent in its communications about corporate responsibility and sustainability. Overcoming skepticism and sidestepping green land mines falls on the shoulders of PR and marketing executives who must move their companies from old PR to adopting CSR communications methods.

This article was written by Susan Nickbarg, principal of SVN Marketing, LLC, a marketing, corporate responsibility and sustainability consultancy. She can be contacted at