Yes, CSR Is Still a Thing

smokestacks and lonely person

This popular re-run from The Measurement Advisor’s 2015 coverage of the International Public Relations Research Conference provides evergreen advice and research results on doing and measuring CSR. See this guide to our current coverage of how to measure CSR.

Back in the early ’90s I was invited to attend a conference in New Jersey with a bunch of other entrepreneurs. I had started the Delahaye Group a few years earlier and was curious about how companies were measuring this new “thing” called Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, for short. They gave me a table and I set up a little booth where I could sell the attendees on the concept of measuring the new thing. In the space of an hour, Tom Chappell, founder of Tom’s of Maine, Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm, Ben Cohen, founder of Ben & Jerry’s, and Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop all had stopped by to chat.

Later that evening, I found myself holding hands and singing Kumbaya—I kid you not—with Eileen Fisher (yes, that Eileen Fisher), and the founders of Rockport shoes, Hannah Anderson, Reebok, Whole Foods, Rafi, and dozens more. At the time, none of these people were household names, they were just passionate individuals trying to convince the world that you could in fact do well by doing good.

Boy, has the world of CSR come a long way. Just today, the chief marketing officer for Unilever said that CSR is inseparable from his basic marketing goals. The CEO of PepsiCo has made performance with purpose and its sustainability mission the core of her leadership, and seen its stock price and profits rise since she implemented the concept.

So it was hardly surprising that a number of papers at IPRRC focused on the most recent incarnations of CSR.

Their conclusions?

  1. Yes, CSR is still a separate thing. Unilever and PepsiCo are outliers; most organizations still see it as a separate corporate initiative and do not totally integrate it into the business.
  2. Best practice: Use multiple forms of media to communicate what you’re doing in CSR.
  3. Best practice: Make sure that your CSR efforts are connected to your products or mission.
  4. And, yes, if you do it right, CSR does enable you to do better by doing good.

Most organizations focus CSR on domestic issues.

For those who are actively in the middle of CSR programming, you’ll want to check out Laura C. Thomas and Pamela Brubaker’s paper on best practices in CSR, Communicating Corporate Social Responsibility in Corporate America. They examined 206 CSR initiatives of 16 U.S. organizations, including: 3M, Cisco, Coke, Colgate, Ford, GE, Intel, Marriott, Nike, Pepsi, and Starbucks.

They content-analyzed the websites of these corporations to see where and how they are promoting their CSR initiatives. Turns out that almost all of them implement initiatives that tie closely to their brand. Dell, for example, promoted their work on reducing the carbon footprint of their products and creating products that are easier to recycle. Others focused on employee engagement in CSR programs. Also:

  • Amazingly, only 6.3% of the of initiatives were actually talked about in news coverage.
  • Most were focused on domestic issues in the U.S. There was little focus on issues in Asia, Latin America, or Africa. Companies aligned their overseas efforts with their largest markets, emphasizing issues in India, China, Mexico, and Brazil.
  • Most organization manage their CSR programs in-house, and the programs are owned entirely by the organization.
  • The top priority appears to be environmental issues (44.7%), followed by initiatives to increase employee engagement (32%), education (24.3%), and health (16.5%).

The medium is still the message.

Richard D. Waters of University of San Francisco and Holly Ott of Penn State University conducted an exhaustive and innovative study of the affect of CSR programs on customers’ perceptions of the sponsoring organizations: Testing For-Profit and Nonprofit Organizations’ CSR…. Attendees at three San Francisco Bay Area festivals were interviewed about their responses to CSR messaging. Results showed that reputation is enhanced when nonprofits use the Web, but not with for-profits. In the for-profit world, messages delivered via traditional (non-Web) media were more credible and believable than messages on the Web.

Their advice:

  • If you’re a nonprofit, Facebook and blogs will enhance your reputation and your believability.
  • If you’re a for-profit organization and want to use CSR to improve your credibility and reputation, stick to direct mail and traditional news stories.

Not communicating about your CSR is not an option.

A study by Sun Lee, Weiwu Zhang, and Alan Abitol of Texas Tech University explored how corporations are generating social capital in their communities: What Is the Value of Corporate Social Responsibility to the Community? Their hypotheses was that if a consumer is aware of what an organization is doing in a community, that consumer would have a stronger relationship with the company. They surveyed 394 customers of a major mid-western grocery store chain that had well-developed CSR programs. It turns out that communicating your CSR efforts is essential if you want the public to be aware and participate in whatever it is you’re doing. More significantly, the results confirmed that customers that engage in CSR programs have stronger relationships with the organization. In fact, the cycle continues, because consumers with strong relationships with the company helped foster other customers’ engagement.

There’s a fine line between CSR and activism.

Another study explored what happens when a CSR program evolves into its own activist program. Derek Moscato of the University of Oregon explored outdoor clothing company Patagonia’s sponsorship of Dam Nation, a documentary about the health of rivers in the U.S.: When CSR Evolves Into Environmental Activism: A case study of Patagonia’s DamNation…. Rather than just underwriting the film, Patagonia fused CSR with activism and engaged their customers in what became a social movement around rivers in America. By taking a very active and visible role, the CEO drove the project and as a result was able to engage the media for maximum impact. The effort was particularly effective in spreading the brand name and mission into communities that were directly affected by dams and rivers.

Long term commitment to consistent messaging pays off.

Finally, Robert L. Heath and Jaesub Lee, of the University of Houston, and Michael J. Palenchar and Laura Lemon, of the University of Tennessee, revealed the latest results of an 18-year study on the impact of the Wally Wise Guy campaign, an industry-based campaign designed to instruct community members how to respond in case of an emergency: Sustained, Industry-Based Risk Communication and the Wally Wise Guy Campaign. A cartoon turtle named Wally Wise Guy has been used for the past 18 years to teach community members to shelter in place in the event of a chemical emergency. The program was initially launched by the City of Deer Park, Texas, home to a number of large chemical companies.

The researchers learned that while the program was initially targeted at kids, sustained communications enabled it to reach secondary target audiences as well, including parents and other adults. The program increased the likelihood that community members actually would shelter in place and follow instructions in a crisis. Results showed that the multiplicity of tactics significantly contributed to the success of the program. Additionally, they found that the program increased trust in the chemical industry as well as in the stores that participated in the program, including Walmart. Key to the research was that they compared their results to communities that did not participate in the program. Findings include a 30% decline in parents who would want to leave their shelter to go pick up their kids, or are likely to flee. ∞

Thanks to Georgie Pauwels for the image.

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.