A recent survey by communications consultancy Black Sun looked at the current state of CSR communications. An analysis of FTSE100 Index company websites showed that 80% have a CSR section in the main navigation of their website. However, less than half included positive reasons to work for the company in their Careers section, and two-thirds of companies did not make a case for CSR investment in the Investor Relations section. A mere 5% articulated their strategy, business model, and key performance indicators (KPIs) clearly.
But how proactively should an organisation communicate its CSR activities in public? A successful communication strategy needs to walk a fine line between the old PR adage of “do good and talk about it” and the high standards of community, employees, and customers these CSR efforts will be measured against. In this context, studies in Scandinavian countries have shown a growing weariness of press releases, corporate advertising and other one-way, top down forms of communications (Source: Corporate social responsibility communication: stakeholder information, response and involvement strategies, M. Morsing and M. Schultz, Business Ethics, 2006 )
By emphasising transparency, credibility and relationships as strategic communications and business goals, companies can avoid these communication pitfalls to achieve long-lasting engagement and impact with their CSR strategy.
An important aspect of transparency is providing balanced information. Balanced means that companies cannot just report on the good things, but need to acknowledge negative impacts of their business operations, and how they work on addressing them (Source: CSR Asia). Transparency in the digital age also requires adhering to relevant laws and social media etiquette, for instance with regards to disclosure (great checklist available from socialmedia.org).
Let others speak for you
Recognition by independent third parties, including reporting standards and certifications, plays an important role in building and maintaining credibility. In Central America, IndiCARSE is a regional program based on the international ISO 26000 Standard Guide for Social Responsibility. The region has also seen the arrival of several industry specific certifications such as the Bonsucro standard for sustainable sugar cane production and the Rainforest Alliance Climate-Smart Verification.
Invest in relationships
Organisations that make a long-term investment in relationships are best equipped to manage tensions and potential conflict with internal and external stakeholders. CSR pundit Richard Parsons makes a strong case for stronger integration of relationship-oriented considerations, a concept called social licence. Citing a recent project to document stakeholder perceptions of the social impacts of a controversial coal-seam gas operation in Queensland, Australia, it became evident that when discussing tangible impacts such as groundwater pollution, stakeholders appeared to attach as much significance to communication processes around those impacts as they did to the impacts themselves. (Source: Integrating social impact management and stakeholder relations, by Richard Parsons)
Always consider how feedback mechanisms can be built into communication activities to encourage an ongoing dialogue with relevant groups and associations. In addition to the powerful capabilities of social media for listening and gauging sentiment, organisations are well advised to make use of the full spectrum of communication channels where practical – including community meetings, roundtables and other forms of interpersonal (face to face) communications to understand stakeholder issues and concerns.