What is the role of CSR in PR campaigns?

About the author, Emily

“I’ve just graduated from the University of Bath in French, Russian and European Studies. During my degree I studied abroad in Siberia for 4 months, and then worked at Quintessentially in Paris (a concierge agency) for 6 months. I’ve also been working seasonally at Disneyland Paris.” Find Emily on Twitter @EmMiddleton22

Having taken a CSR and sustainability module in my final semester of university earlier this year, it seemed the natural choice for my Velvet blog post! CSR can be a great chance to harness the power of PR for good, so I was interested in exploring the link between the two. As we’ve seen, a lot of companies are already doing this, and doing it well, but there are still lots of missed opportunities…

It’s now generally acknowledged that good Corporate Social Responsibility strategy can both help the planet and add real value to a brand. Companies with good reputations often make the biggest contributions to environmental and social causes – think of Google’s reputation as a caring employer, Disney’s partnership with the Make A Wish Foundation, or BMW’s commitment to saving the environment. Despite this, reports suggest only 1/3 of companies use CSR in their PR strategy. But why should brands be wary of linking PR campaigns to CSR policies?

No doubt many large corporations see CSR initiatives as PR stunts rather than philanthropic work. This kind of thinking has often backfired – many companies have been accused of using CSR as a PR tactic to ‘greenwash’ over past misdemeanours. Enron is a prime example of this. Once a poster child for CSR, the now bankrupt American energy company is a clear case of social responsibility gone wrong. Despite its CSR programme which promoted ethical business and environmental practices, it turned out the company was committing serious fraud, and was complying with absolutely none of its much publicised CSR commitments. This disaster has since overshadowed many CSR initiatives by other companies, which have been criticised as putting forwards more of the same false claims and empty promises.

However, despite this precedent, PR and CSR can get along. An honest and thorough CSR program can play an important role in PR strategy, as many other companies have proved. One example of this is Microsoft; widely recognized as a ‘good’ company, Microsoft’s environmental and social policies have not only increased the sustainability and resilience of the business, but have also played an important role in building its positive reputation. People all over the world have come to associate Microsoft with innovative humanitarian initiatives, like Bill Gates’ vaccination program, Gavi. In the highly competitive tech sector, this can be great way to build a loyal customer base and attract the best talent to the company.

But do you have to be the world’s richest man to have a meaningful CSR campaign? Probably not – there are lots of ways for small businesses to get involved in charity work. Things like sponsoring a local event or team, pro bono work or fundraising can allow small businesses to make a difference in their local community, and raise their profile in the area.

With this in mind, there are clear PR benefits to be gained from promoting a company’s CSR strategy; however, it should be approached with caution. Lessons can be learned from companies like Enron and countless others, who have spent more time promoting their CSR campaigns than actually implementing them. Just look at FIFA – currently caught up in a corruption scandal despite a very flashy website detailing their code of governance ethics, HSBC – who finances companies known to regularly commit human rights violations, despite their commitments to responsible investment, and Gap – who continue to jeopardize the safety of sweat shop workers in Bangladesh, despite a ‘new vision’ in its human rights policy. These kinds of misguided initiatives can only be successful in a PR setting when based on concrete social and environmental achievements, with real results to shout about.