Saturday, 6 March 2010

CSR - modern business strategy or just the latest lobbying tool?

One thing that a lot of times gets regarded with even more cynicism than PR is corporate social responsibility. More so since lately an increasing number of companies have integrated CSR into their PR departments and have defined the practice of CSR as a PR function. CSR falls under the remit of public relations practitioners in their 'boundary spanning role' (described by systems theory - Grunig and Hunt, 1984).

Much debate has arisen around this topic, and our two teams in class this week didn't fail to bring a spark into their heated discussion while trying to decide whether: 
"Attempts to align companies or brands with good causes are mere window dressing and companies should stick to the business of making money."

One of the main factors that lead to the rise of CSR is globalization. With the new knowledge-based economy emerging in the early 1990s appeared human rights, environmental and labour abuses which led to the anti-globalization demonstrations at the end of the 20th century. The result was that companies from all sectors and industries had to implement new policies and reform their business following the new social responsibility trend.

Whether it is viewed as superficial window dressing or as a genuine, new ethical approach of conducting activities, CSR is a reality of today's business environment and more and more organisations are embracing it. It is hard to tell whether 'caring' and 'responsible are just the latest must haves for brand image or a true shift in attitude has occurred. My guess is that both are true depending at the organisation we look at.

 This could be the reasons why the value of CSR programmes and initiatives in terms of public recognition varies from company to company. And it could also be why in a lot of cases they do not provide returns to match the inputs. Certain corporations, although successful in their field, will never inspire credibility in their CSR initiatives. This might be due, for one, to the overall 'dullness' effect that CSR programmes tend to have embedded within them. Secondly, cynical reactions, based on past experiences with companies, are a big problem for CSR initiatives and severely undermine the value of these efforts. These programmes will barely receive any recognition, while other campaigns, equally worthy, capture the attention of the media and other stakeholders, making the investment worthwhile.

 It all comes down to how well the PR department has managed to build and maintain the corporations' reputation and how well they managed to promote, raise awareness and attract attention to said CSR initiatives.
The truth about CSR, like with most contemporary PR issues discussed in this class, falls somewhere in the middle. A lot of companies use CSR programs as a lobbying tool, a fashion statement or a means of winning favours with government. This doesn't mean that there aren't just as many organisations who truly embrace responsibility for the impact that their activities have on the environment, employees, communities, and all other members of the public sphere. This is why I cannot agree with the debate's proposition - although it might be true for certain companies who are unwilling or incapable (due to their field of activity) of associating themselves with good causes, there are a lot of organisations who've truly embraced these initiatives and communities everywhere have profited from them. And if more corporations would fall under the previous category then employees, consumers and entire communities would be happier, more loyal and ultimately more productive and beneficial for the organisation.

J. Grunig, T. Hunt, Managing Public Relations, Thompson Learning, 1984
Michael Regester, Judy Larkin, Risk Issues and Crisis Management, Kogan Page, 4th edition, 2008

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