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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?