Communicating responsibility

How should CSR be communicated to the public?

How should CSR be communicated to the public? Shout too loud and you risk alienating customers – but keep quiet and you lose the benefits of being seen to do good. Mette Morsing tunes in.
Communicating responsibilityCorporate social responsibility is an extremely difficult message to convey. Some corporations engage in CSR altruistically – because it’s “the right thing to do” – others, to show the company in a positive light and add value to the company. A firm that is seen to have positive social values is liked by the general consumer, and so the consumer will choose that firm rather than a competitor.

Any corporation’s legitimacy depends on its ability to meet the expectations of a diverse array of stakeholders. But companies cannot expect automatically to be trusted when they send messages displaying themselves as socially responsible organisations. While stakeholders like to identify with companies engaging in CSR initiatives, they do not necessarily appreciate it when companies conspicuously talk about their CSR initiatives.

Unconspicuously conspicuous

At first glance it seems like a straightforward communication task. As companies engage in initiatives that support corporate social responsibility, they should communicate about these initiatives in their marketing and public relations efforts. CSR is generally associated with positive events, and as such companies are inclined to communicate about their good deeds to influence public opinion and enhance their corporate reputation.

But communicating CSR is a delicate issue that needs to be handled in subtle ways. If companies label themselves responsible and caring corporate citizens, it does not automatically follow that the corporate reputation will improve. Rather, the company runs the risk of provoking suspicion about self- complacency and criticism for having self-serving motives in their CSR actions, or even that the company is trying to hide something.

Even “good companies” face this problem. Conspicuous CSR communication may result in negative reactions and reputational damage despite genuine ethical intentions. And the irony is that the companies most active within CSR are also the most criticised, whereas the companies doing least are correspondingly the least attacked. This is because if you proclaim how ethical you are, you have to back it up – and there is nothing the media likes more than a broken promise. Meanwhile, no one’s going to criticise your CSR if you’re not doing any CSR – but that doesn’t make you a good company.

So if all corporate messages run the risk of being misinterpreted by the customer, is the right approach a silent strategy? Perhaps companies should just get on with it and not say anything about it, rather than engaging in public exposure with ambitious statements about social responsibilities. With less public communication the company might avoid the risk of accusation of CSR being nothing more than a marketing strategy, and avoid attracting critical attention from the media or suspicious NGOs.

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