4 Corporate Guidelines for Doing the Right Thing

April 1, 2019

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Public opinion polls have long shown that people expect businesses to engage in socially responsible practices. Increasingly, we’re also seeing that consumers want to support companies whose values align with their own. In turn, more companies are engaging in — or ramping up — their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities.

Based on current best practices for corporate social responsibility, here are four guidelines to help your company do the right thing, in the right way:

1. Be strategic.

A pervasive trend in corporate social responsibility finds companies making strategic choices about where to invest in their communities and what causes to support. Historically, corporate philanthropy has followed what one executive I interviewed called the “mile wide and inch deep” approach — or what another described as the “peanut butter spread” method, in which many nonprofits each receive a small part of a company’s charitable giving, but without those contributions leaving a deep influence on the overall community.

By contrast, companies are now zeroing in on just one or a few causes, which take priority over their other community giving. Corporations have learned they can make the biggest impact when they concentrate their support in particular areas.

To guide your decision-making, focus strategically on causes that align with your company’s mission and values, support its business goals, address particular local needs and/or relate to the concerns of crucial publics. If your company operates in more than one market, its signature social-responsibility program should make a difference not only where the corporate headquarters are located, but in every community where the company has a presence.

2. Work toward broad involvement.

Public-opinion surveys show a growing trend of people wanting to work for companies that are responsible, caring and involved with their communities. Most people aspire to be part of something bigger than themselves; they want to help others.

Providing ways to match those desires with community needs is a winning endeavor, one that gives people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet and work together the chance to do just that, toward the goal of benefiting society. When considering a possible corporate social responsibility project, one criterion should be how extensively the effort would help cultivate connections not only with people in the community but also within the company.

Well-thought-out CSR programs provide opportunities for companies to develop relationships, build executive and employee skills, and recruit and retain staff. There are many ways to increase your company’s social involvement, such as selecting community partners who have broad networks, rewarding employees for their volunteer efforts on nonprofit boards, devoting certain workdays to volunteer projects and incentivizing employee donations to charity by matching their contributions.

3. Be accountable, and expect the same from your partners.

Another growing trend affecting corporate social responsibility is the higher degree of accountability now expected from companies and their community partners. Much of this shift has resulted from the explosion of new technology and information that allows consumers and others to readily access and share a multitude of details about an organization’s products, services, finances, personnel, etc., in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds. Moreover, the vast amount of information now available, both good and bad, increases public skepticism and heightens the need for transparency in all organizations.

And because CSR-related efforts have become more strategic — with corporate resources being targeted toward specific outcomes — companies now have greater vested interests in managing those programs to achieve success. This dynamic puts pressure on businesses and their nonprofit partners to be accountable for their stewardship of those resources.

So choose your partners carefully, and make sure your own motives are pure. Establish systems to monitor and track progress toward CSR goals, and be prepared to adjust your plans as necessary.

4. Communicate.

Finally, although communication is what we practice every day in public relations, one notable critique of many corporate social responsibility programs is that they’re not sufficiently communicated. Of course, reticence to publicize CSR programs stems in part from concerns companies have about appearing self-congratulatory or boastful.

To be sure, communicating in a genuine way about the good that companies do is a difficult feat, especially in an era when many people are skeptical about such corporate initiatives. Nonetheless, communicating your company’s CSR programs is necessary. If you don’t share that information, your social responsibility goals are less likely to be met, your employees and community partners are less likely to become engaged in your CSR efforts, and your customers will be unaware of your sincere efforts to be a force for good.

It’s crucial to establish strong communication processes before, during and after any CSR initiative. Before launching a new social-responsibility program, secure commitments from your senior executives. Engage with people inside the company and with external partners. Throughout the project, provide regular status updates to reinforce the importance of stakeholder commitment and energize your audiences. And finally, when concluding any corporate social responsibility effort — or at milestones during an ongoing CSR program — share relevant results and celebrate. Thank stakeholders and articulate your possible plans for the future.

Effective communication in the CSR space requires the ability to share concise and relevant stories. And while social media is tailor-made for this kind of communication, it’s not enough by itself. To target your most important publics, your company needs a solid communication plan that uses a variety of relevant channels to share well-supported and coherent messages. 

As more and more millennials and Gen Zers grow up and become consumers, employees and stockholders, the demand for socially responsible organizations will only increase. You can contribute to your company’s bottom line and reputation by ensuring that CSR programs are strategically oriented, broad-based, engaging, accountable and communicated effectively.

Lois Foreman-Wernet, Ph.D., APR

Lois Foreman-Wernet, Ph.D., APR, is professor and chair of communication at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, where she also serves as faculty adviser to the Capital Chapter of PRSSA. She is a past recipient of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations Educator Fellowship.

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