It’s OK to be of several minds on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and especially at this time of year. Even communicators working in CSR can’t agree on exactly how to define it, a recent study from Aflac revealed.
And during the holiday season, which now is nearly over, it’s hard for journalists to avoid numerous brands pitching stories about how much good they’re doing. Just look at PR Newswire, Business Wire, 3BL Media's CSRwire or Google Alerts in late November through the end of year: the CSR category overflows. And American brands are far from the only ones riding this bandwagon. It’s a trend worldwide, even in countries where corporations are bound by law to dedicate a percentage of their revenue to CSR.
While there’s nothing wrong with brands pushing a good-news story, when there are so many similar pitches arriving simultaneously, getting coverage can be difficult. Beyond the possibility of being crowded out, few of these holiday-time CSR pitches result in stories since most are of the spray-and-pray variety: send out a generic CSR pitch to a slew of journalists and see who bites. The thinking is that with the holidays being a traditionally slow news period, writers are starving for stories. Such thinking works sometimes, and it's easy to execute, but more often a simple, personal, note to the journalist works far better (more on this later).
There’s another timing issue. Just as journalists are skeptical when brands seem to pigeonhole CSR into two months, consumers also are wary. Some 81% of consumers say they “are more likely to purchase products from a company active in philanthropic efforts year-round as opposed to only” at certain times, says the Aflac study that was reported first in PR News Pro. While we realize many brands are philanthropic year-round, it’s incumbent on communicators to make sure that message is circulated regularly, not just in November and December.
Sure, you can argue that it’s good to be humble about charity. While that’s an enviable personal ethic, it seems things are different for brands. CSR helps sell product, woo investors and attract talent, the same Aflac study says. “1 in 5 consumers say they would actually pay more for a product or service if they believe the company is socially responsible,” it notes. On the other hand, if a brand’s CSR work isn’t communicated well and consistently, who will know about it?
And who can avoid smiling and feeling fuzzy when brands spend time and money to make the world a better place? It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? Hold on. Things aren’t always as they appear. The same Aflac survey found 40% of CSR executives believe senior brand leaders backed CSR more to look good than to actually do good. It also found some leaders choose CSR efforts based mostly on their own tastes. And while the study says the best CSR efforts relate to a brand’s business (a lumber company working to save the forests, for example), in some cases it looks like brands sponsor CSR activities that run counter to their business goals. Is this guilt at work or is your blogger overly skeptical?
For example, what are we to make of a television network that does its best to keep viewers glued to their seats watching its content, but also sponsors a CSR effort that encourages kids to exercise? Perhaps a more honest message would be television in moderation.
Still, some brands really seem serious about CSR. Take a look at kids network Nickelodeon. Each year on Worldwide Day of Play, usually a Saturday in September, Nickelodeon goes dark on all its channels for three hours (and also shuts down its web sites, thank goodness) to emphasize one message to kids, as Nickelodeon says in its materials: “Get up, get out, and go play!”
The message might be simple but the execution is complex. Nick travels the country months in advance of Day of Play, encouraging and funding projects designed to get kids to exercise. It’s also used another key CSR tactic: collaboration. Nick has aligned itself with a slew of brands that have exercise and play initiatives, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Major League Baseball, the NFL and the Police Athletic League, among many others.
An easy target for CSR ringing hollow, of course, is a brand like Wells Fargo. The bank is trying to resuscitate its image after the bogus credit card and bank account scandal that ballooned earlier this year. You can hardly be on social media without being subject to the bank mentioning its good deeds in terms of money donated to causes, scholarships etc.
Of course, it seems Wells Fargo management isn’t feeling too guilty about the scandal’s victims. Last month the bank petitioned a San Francisco court to enforce a clause prohibiting customers from suing the bank. Instead, if Wells Fargo has its way in court, those customers will be restricted to arbitration, which is seen as more financially favorable to the bank. Earlier this month, lawmakers introduced legislation to allow those wronged customers to sue. Wells Fargo has said it is making legal counsel available to wronged customers. Yes, I realize your eyebrows are raised on that one as you wonder whether customers can trust said legal counsel.
Our guess is that Wells Fargo’s effort to push its CSR to overshadow some of its business practices will be modestly effective only. “The age of CSR as a mere PR strategy is behind us,” Aflac SVP Catherine Blades tells PR News Pro in an interview about the study. “In a time of increased transparency,” she adds, “employees, consumers, investors and others quickly distinguish between window dressing and CSR motivated by authentic compassion….”
In the bevy of CSR pitches we received this year at holiday time, few stood out. One that did came from Bozell, a PR & advertising agency headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. The firm dedicated an entire day to CSR, closing its offices for paying business and offering its creative services free to any and all comers. “Nothing was off limits and everything was free, and completed that day,” the agency’s Jordan Bath wrote in a note with the pitch. Bozell wanted to create 95 free projects to celebrate its 95 years in business. It ended up doing more, touching 111 organizations, families and people in the community. The projects ranged from tattoo designs and web page concepts to design work for small nonprofits.
Bozell CEO Kim Mickelsen admits shutting down for an entire day is a risk. “There are times when we worry that we’ve donated too large a percent of our time,” she says. “But [engaging in CSR] is in our DNA and it energizes our staffers…in the end, it helps us grow.” That DNA comes originally from founders Leo Bozell and Morris Jacobs, who passed down a core principle of the firm: “You must pay rent for the space you occupy on this Earth.”
But what clinched this pitch for us was that it felt personal. Ms. Bath wrote, “Imagine what could be done if, each year, all U.S. agencies encouraged…employees...to donate just 5% of their time to local community events. It would be game changing for so many causes, nonprofits and small business.” That’s a good thought to ponder at this time of year, for the entire year, actually.