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.
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?