Public relations’ role in corporate social responsibility

Public relations is the same thing as corporate social responsibility. OR PR exists only to help communicate outcomes of CSR. OR PR offers a middle ground where it operates as a strategic partner to CSR.

PR and CSR working hand in hand

These are three versions of the role public relations plays in the context of corporate social responsibility. You’ll get different versions of what the ‘correct’ version is depending on who you speak to, where their interests lie and the depth of their understanding on one or both disciplines.

Sadly, that depth of understanding often leaves a lot to be desired.

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My view? Well, it is that CSR grew out of PR. Without public relations, CSR would be struggling for a theoretical and strategic starting foundation (see why I hold this view later in this post). CSR has partially developed as a stand-alone business practice because of the connotations associated with the term ‘public relations’.

These connotations are often pejorative and they certainly don’t involve organisational evolution and changing – even if only partially – as a response to stakeholder preferences.

To add further confusion to the history wars and terminology debate, stakeholder relations is another manifestation of CSR. But that is a furphy as stakeholder relations IS PR. It’s just that, once again, the brand has evolved, I suspect, to give its processes and salespeople more credibility than PR.

 What is CSR?

On a superficial (but potentially still useful) level, CSR entails programs which manifest themselves through an organisation investing into areas which its stakeholders find of benefit. For example, school curriculum resources, scholarships and sponsorship for community organisations.

On a more profound level, CSR is about an organisation operating in a manner more in line with stakeholder needs and wants. Examples of how this could manifest itself includes:

  • ensuring an acceptable number of local residents are employed in certain roles
  • sourcing materials based on criteria such as them being sustainable and/or having a minimal environmental footprint and/or being produced in an acceptably ethical manner
  • emitting only what is deemed to be an acceptable amount of greenhouse gases
  • price rises only occurring according to certain benchmarks and guidelines.

It could be that communicating with stakeholders in a certain manner, for some, is also critically important and escalates this dimension up the needs and wants scales. This could manifest itself in an organisation being proactive and not obfuscating in regard to key issues, as well as consulting with stakeholders on important issues before making decisions.

Perhaps most importantly of all on the CSR-communication axis, it means an organisation actually taking on board what the stakeholders have expressed and, at least partially,  adapting business decisions based on them.

Applying any of these approaches will build trust between an organisation and its stakeholders, a core element of reputation enhancement.

What is PR?

The notion of an organisation changing the way it operates based on stakeholder interests and concerns is essentially what public relations, at its most fundamental, is about. This is called two-way symmetrical communication, and it’s one of the main reasons for my passion for the discipline.

Public relations, a combination of science and art, uses market research to determine and inform the most effective approach to stakeholder communication.

So essential aspects of PR include:

  • recognising the symbiotic nature of organisation-stakeholder communication
  • understanding benefits which accrue from organisational change
  • effective provision of information
  • interactive and learning-centred communication. This entails active listening to stakeholders, recognising their issues and increasing the knowledge of stakeholders due to this involvement
  • counselling organisations on how to better adapt their operations (with, hopefully, organisations undertaking some of this change).

Public relations and corporate social responsibility as strategic partners

One of the fundamental tenets of PR is that it includes mechanisms which enable organisations to determine and understand the issues, interests and opportunities of its stakeholders.

As a result of this, the strategic and sophisticated PR practitioner is an invaluable repository of information who can inform and advise the organisation on approaches to best enhance its reputation.

No matter the position one holds on what defines PR or CSR and which discipline should have the responsibility for ensuring as much organisational alignment with stakeholder interests as possible, there is no doubt the two areas can profitably work together. Hopefully, this post provides some insights into how this can occur.

The lazy way for this to manifest itself is by using PR as a simple mechanism to broadcast information to stakeholders on organisational CSR efforts, including the securing of media coverage. For PR to be used for this alone, however, is of course something I view as pretty tragic. As PR professionals, let’s do our best to ensure this happens only in rare situations.

How does CSR and PR work in organisations you work with or for? What experience do you have in the two disciplines working together and what observations and insights can you share? What is your view on CSR being a palatable term for PR and it undertaking activity which should really be the remit of PR?

Two-way symmetrical communication helping achieve business objectives

There are a large number of ways in which the practice of two-way symmetrical communication can be applied to help achieve tangible, money-making business objectives. It may mean that the speed at which money is made is not as quick as initially hoped, it may mean not quite as much money is made and it will definitely involve more ‘process’ being involved to achieve the objective of making money.

PR helps sensitive mining issues

But money will be made and objectives will be achieved; it just means a sufficient amount of respect needs to be shown to those who live in the region and who have a stake in it (e.g. people who utilise or who have an attachment with the local environment) and not take them for granted.

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Specific manifestations of two-way symmetrical in this context include, from a process perspective, undertaking the market and industry research noted in the previous stakeholder relations post in this series.

Secondly, the company can employ ways of accessing the resource being mined that obviates, as such as possible, problematic issues manifesting themselves.

Thirdly, the mining can be delayed for a (probably significant) period of time, waiting for the community to become more up to speed on the mining.

Fourthly, not mining in the most visible and/or sensitive and/or problematic areas (inside vineyards etc) that are scenic or tourism-critical. Alternative means of accessing the resource could be utilised or it could mean that some resources are simply not accessed at all.

Fifthly, utilise means of extracting the resource that have, aesthetically speaking, as low an impact as possible (i.e. it’s hard to see them for key vantage points). Mining companies are already employing this approach. It has meant additional costs in designing innovative infrastructure and equipment, but undergoing this process (forced innovation, if you like) is an opportunity for innovations in efficiency and cost-reduction to also occur.

Sixth, put in place a monitoring system for the local environment, supported by the development of an overseeing scientific sub-committee, to detect if there any impacts occurring from the mining. Salient factors in regard to this follow:

  • The sub-committee should include independent scientists approved by the organisation and, possibly, the community
  • Include local community members in the sub-committee (their close-hand examination of the process will give it not so much added rigour, but a deeper connection to the community. This will help minimise scepticism towards the sub-committee’s credibility)
  • Agree on benchmarks for any potential negative environmental impacts (e.g. gas leaks, compromising aquifers, chemical leakage, coal residues on grape vines, wildlife deaths etc)  that might occur and, importantly, what levels of impact should halt mining until the issue is resolved to sub-committee’s satisfaction
  • The sub-committee is funded by the organisation but it must be independent in the analysis it undertakes and decisions it hands down
  • The organisation needs to outline in what way it will incorporate the sub-committee’s decision making into its own decisions. In all likelihood, the organisation should articulate it takes the sub-committee’s decisions and advice very seriously, but it will still make its own final decisions on the matter in partnership with the appropriate government and regulatory authorities
  • Once creating the sub-committee, it will be difficult for the organisation not to take its advice. This underlines the importance of, very clearly and very proactively, articulating and communicating the sub-committee’s terms of reference early in the process.

This post and the one preceding it on issues management and best practice PR do not contain an exhaustive list of the issues management and two-way symmetrical communication management approaches that can be applied to a situation such as the one addressed. But it should underline that taking these approaches is not difficult to do and it should also go some way towards making it clear that to achieve sustainable business outcomes, it is common sense to take approaches such as those suggested.

Do you agree or disagree?

What elements of what has been proposed do you support or not support? Why? Are the rationales for two-way symmetrical communication approaches valid, or do you think they are not practical in a business environment? Will these approaches help make companies’ approach to stakeholder management outcomes and/or profit-generating capabilities? Or not? What experiences of your own can you share in stakeholder management in the context of situations such as the one outlined that we could learn from?

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CSR strategy does make a PR difference – new finding

It’s hideous to countenance the possibility that corporate social responsibility has been a passing fashion for public relations, for its diminishing profile in business communication has struck me as both mystifying and disappointing. A new study underlining the impact that CSR has on perceptions of the reliability of a company’s products will hopefully contribute to getting the discipline back on PR’s agenda.

PR CSR business mutual responsibility

One of the study’s key findings, however, was that organisations that produce high risk-involved products might not experience the benefits of strong CSR associations that organisations with low risk-involved products do. For me, that means resources and energy companies, among others, need to question their assumption that CSR is a reputation ‘cure-all’. This isn’t a reason not to operate in a socially responsible manner, of course, but it could certainly influence organisational strategy.

I mention resources and energy specifically because CSR is a main player in these areas, doubtlessly due to their potential contentiousness. The sectors either feel the need to earn ‘brownie points’ with stakeholders, or they genuinely believe their organisational interests are aligned with societal interests. In either case, they lead the way in the application of CSR and are dragging the broader business sector forward.

This is a wonderful thing, as organisations have a huge influence on society and social well-being, far more than governments in my view. They have, therefore, a responsibility to more than just their shareholders.

Public relations as CSR central

CSR will never be effective if it is bolt-on and not built-in, which is possibly why PR has become sidelined in its evolution. CSR is a culture and operational process; it isn’t a ‘program’ or ‘promotion’, no matter how well meaning, that PR and marketing can spin out into a high profile media campaign or an engaging social media drive.

Of course, PR should very much be an organisational culture-centred discipline, counselling an organisation on how to evolve to meet stakeholder needs. But in some ways it is possible the CSR ‘centre’ within an organisation could be usurping PR in this sense. No doubt studies will materialise that examine this issue.

CSR, relationships and sales

The study this post refers to – Transferring Effects of CSR Strategy on Consumer Responses: The Synergistic Model of Corporate Communications Strategy – was written by Sora Kim and published in the Journal of Public Relations Research (2; 2011).

It examines consumer perceptions towards corporations (using Motorola and Kellogg as case studies) and three corporate communication strategies:

  • Corporate ability
  • CSR
  • What Kim calls a ‘hybrid’ strategy’.

The corporate ability strategy focuses on building awareness of an organisation’s expertise in terms of their products and services. A CSR strategy is, I hope, self-evident (but just in case, it emphasises an organisation’s socially responsible credentials). Kim’s hybrid strategy means both strategies exist and are applied by an organisation in a conscious, intended manner.

Interestingly, but perhaps predictably, Kim notes that despite extensive research on the topic, “research has not reached consensus regarding the consequences of CSR”.

CSR and communication: reputation impact

Some of the study’s key findings include:

  • When companies are well known amongst consumers, “a CSR strategy may be more effective in influencing” consumers, positively impacting on perceptions of CSR and corporate ability
  • Employing a hybrid strategy is a “safe”, feasible and effective means of undertaking corporate communication
  • The above finding should be understood in the context, however, that “a CSR strategy seems to be much more effective” in creating positive consumer sentiment towards an organisation
  • Just because an organisation is perceived to have a strong corporate ability (i.e. achieve positive commercial/business outcomes) doesn’t mean stakeholders associate it with a CSR positioning
  • When an organisation goes beyond a consumer’s commercial expectations in undertaking CSR activities, consumers are more likely to be satisfied with the organisations, “resulting in positive evaluation” of the organisations.

Kim makes the assertion that, “consumers may feel that a company that is socially responsible and helps society using its own profit would also have a strong ability to make good products…this suggests that there are transferring effects” of perceptions of CSR associations onto the ability to make corporate ability associations – the caveat to this being that both the companies in the study being well known and this could impact on the findings.

Reputation more important than relationships in PR?

In closing a discussion, Kim refers to the interesting notion that PR practitioners may be abandoning what was once the more prevalent commitment to relationship management, practicing instead reputation management. This is an interesting and not so subtle differentiation that is worth exploring. If, indeed, this is the case, then our profession needs to do a serious stocktake of the direction in which we are heading.

Reputation is about, essentially, the surface of an organisation. Relationship goes directly to how organisations and stakeholders interact, how they work with each other. It is very much a behavioural dimension, whereas reputation is more closely aligned with perceptions.

Perceptions don’t buy products. They don’t advocate organisations. They don’t make a difference. Behaviour, on the other hand, can achieve all three of these outcomes.

Which leads to a concluding question. Kim’s study is all about perceptions. Does a stronger perceived CSR capability, I wonder, encourage consumers to buy more of an organisation’s products?

What is your experience, possibly through research your organisation has undertaken or that you are aware of, in CSR influencing reputation, stakeholder relationships and sales? Does your organisation undertake research to help shape its CSR strategy? How much of a role does PR have in CSR in your organisation? Do you think CSR was a PR fad that has now, gulp, had its place taken by social media?