Corporate social responsibility initiatives run the risk of being seen as insincere. However, there are ways that companies can thoughtfully — and effectively — engage with the public about social issues.
Large companies with corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies in place are not always trusted or believed. How can companies address this communication challenge? One common strategy is to disseminate a great deal of information — everything from detailed CSR reports to overviews of your initiatives — on the Web and on popular social networks. The goal is transparency about your CSR activities.
But even proactive, transparent CSR communications often ignore the issues about which stakeholders are most curious. Moreover, stakeholders sometimes believe corporations communicate opportunistically about CSR commitments. Pushing CSR-related communications messages at the public can foment mistrust and foster indifference. People do not seem to pay much attention to information disseminated by companies. For example, a CSR branding study conducted in 2010 by the market research company Penn Schoen Berland, in conjunction with the public relations and communications firm Burson-Marsteller, found that only 11% of U.S. adults recalled having heard CSR communication from any company in the previous year, and only 13% had read about a company’s CSR agenda on a corporate website.
Given the poor payoff of CSR communications strategies, some companies choose to believe that actions speak louder than words. They strive to do good rather than to expend resources talking about their efforts. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., a quick-service restaurant chain based in Denver, Colorado, has never published a CSR report. The company has instead built its reputation for social responsibility on policies such as using antibiotic-free meat. When Bloomberg Businessweek asked Chipotle’s spokesperson why the company had never issued a CSR report, he replied that the company would rather invest in taking action than in talking about it.
What’s the best way for a company to take concrete actions? One way is through strategic partnerships in the nonprofit and NGO (nongovernmental organization) community. But these partnerships are not without risks. For every company like Intel Corp. — whose work with community solutions programs in Africa has been well received — there are companies whose efforts are perceived as mercenary.