To be effective, CSR must be communicated successfully

The media and the corporate sector have a synergistic relationship when it comes to communicating CSR efforts to the public.

Source: AmCham Perspective Magazine

Both social responsibility and corporate philanthropy are growing trends in the business community. Leading companies are dedicating assets and people to develop the strategy and direction that the company should devote to these areas and implement them as corporate values.

In Serbia, although much talked about, the corporate social responsibility concept is still not broadly understood. It is among the business models that are easily twisted and interpreted variously. For those reasons doubts about the way CSR or corporate philanthropy should be communicated through the media still exist.

The importance of communicating CSR

Yet, communication is what makes a company socially responsible. One of the key aspects of good corporate responsibility practice involves transparent communication. Reporting, as a part of communication efforts, presents proof of a company’s commitment to sustainable social development. If well contextualized and authentic, the socially responsible program of one company can initiate a wider dialogue and unite many institutions, corporations and individuals on the same issue, thus multiplying the impact.

A recent, well known, example of the paramount importance of communication is the case of a girl called Tijana Ognjanović who needed medical treatment. If it were not for the well-planned and systematically led communications initiated by individuals and backed by the corporate sector and media, fund raising for Tijana’s medical treatment would have been much harder. By being authentic and transparent in communication, with a cause worth supporting, a small number of people can initiate change and engage the involvement of larger groups.

A few good rules on communication

An essential element of social responsibility, communication can, depending on its goal, present a boost to CSR efforts by inspiring others. But if led improperly or solely for promotion purposes, it can be burden and tarnish a good cause.

Back to the basics, CSR and PR, or dialogue with stakeholders, in essence have the same mission to create value for society and build greater wellbeing. It is important for companies to explain what they are doing and why, to develop a social story that is unique and honest. The intensity of communication, on the other hand, depends on corporate culture. If a company wants to inspire others by presenting a case, public relations will certainly have a leading role. Still, the efforts of a low-key media player can at the same time present a strong contribution to social development and are of no less importance.

The CSR philosophy of a company presents an opportunity to build its reputation and differentiate it from its competition. That communication needs to be based on facts and be open and honest. Today, every single bit of information can easily be investigated and tracked. If proved incorrect it can be significantly harmful to a company’s reputation. The reputation itself is the most valuable company asset. Once blemished, it can take years to recover trust and good will relations with stakeholders.

If the social responsibility philosophy of a certain company is integrated in its corporate values and the culture leans on it, communication presents only an expression of efforts, energy and funds invested in the program. Corporate responsibility best works when a company decides to talk about important issues and its efforts to resolve them. By celebrating CSR victories, a company can inspire others to do better in society.

Additionally, if information on social responsibility is backed up by evidence, it will increase engagement and inspire other stakeholders for similar activities. Know-how on reporting on corporate responsibility is gradually being spread among Serbian companies. The fact that GRI reporting is being accepted by a greater number of corporate citizens as a reputation endorsement and value creator is a promising sign.

Yet, we are witnessing other intentions in regards to CSR, as well. If the main purpose of practicing so-called socially responsible activities is gaining media publicity or promotion, those efforts will certainly be easily \seen through. As Abraham Lincoln wisely said: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”.

Communication departments have the important task of resisting pressure to put into media all activities and do fine filtering of information that has value for the general society. Communication efforts do not always have to be media wise. Occasionally, it is much more effective to send a letter to the local authorities and consequently set up a meeting than organize a press conference.

Partnering with media

Finding a balance between CSR and PR, that is publicity, is a fine craft. With a growing number of socially responsible projects being implemented annually, both media and PR professionals have increased their capacity to fully comprehend the concept itself.

Over the past few years, corporate responsibility has been a topic of many professional conferences and media gatherings in Serbia, including many focused on media reporting on CSR activities. Although the amount and quality of reporting on corporate responsibility is constantly on the rise, there is still a lot of room for improvement on all sides. It is through media that the citizens gain knowledge of responsible initiatives. The media’s role is not only to report, but to educate. They act both as watch dogs of general social interest and as a pressure group that can monitor events and alert citizens.

This dialogue on joint efforts to promote CSR must be continued, as we have to constantly bear in mind that the media and communicators are two sides of the same coin, especially on socially sensitive issues. Unless the media raise public awareness regarding a specific issue encountered by the social community, the corporate sector may not recognize the need or be more reluctant to act.

The other way round, without business sector support in resources, it would be rather difficult for the media to implement their own socially responsible initiatives. Excellent examples of how corporate and media sector can work together for the benefit of others are the B92 Foundation project “Battle for Babies” or the “Heart for Children” campaign currently run by Blic Foundation. Both campaigns represent outstanding synergy and a hallmark for other media houses to follow.

Financial crisis emphasized importance of corporate responsibility

The role of social responsibility is even greater in times of financial crisis. Global recession has caused corporate irresponsible behavior ranging from a lack of law-abiding behavior to intentional disrespect of corporate values. This has led to serious diminishing of public confidence in the corporate responsibility concept.

At the same time, citizens, burdened by hard times, have limited tolerance for the mistakes of corporations or even no tolerance for those who misbehave. The era of digital media has unleashed activism and what seems an insignificant comment can actually initiate a social avalanche that can consequently affect a company’s stock exchange value.

Thus, corporate responsibility becomes a most important safeguard of corporate reputation. Companies that were worst affected by the recession are those that most need to emphasize communication on corporate responsibility to bring back trust. Expectations of good corporate behavior have risen, and programs once initiated need to be preserved and further developed. The America-based Reputation Institute says that for companies to win in the reputation economy, they need customers and stakeholders to trust and support them. CSR is a major driver of trust and reputation. So CSR is not dead.

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