What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Gone are the days in which businesses exist solely to make a profit. Yes, the financial bottom line is still a priority. But businesses are now a lot more focussed on corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is all about giving back to employees, the community, and the world at large.

It’s important because consumers are taking an ever-increasing interest in the ethical practices of the brands they buy from. So, if you’re not doing your part to show you’re a responsible business, you’ll lose out to the companies that are.

In short, corporate social responsibility is no longer a nice-to-have: it’s a must-have.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is CSR?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable to its stakeholders, the public, and wider society. It can take various forms, but the two most common types of CSR are philanthropic and environmental responsibility.

Philanthropic responsibility is about donating time, money or resources to worthy causes, while environmental responsibility is about reducing the damaging effects your business has on the environment.

The role of PR in CSR

Many people think PR and corporate social responsibility are the same thing. But they’re not. Although, naturally, there is an overlap.

CSR is a set of strategies that organisations use to contribute to the wellbeing of the community. While PR is how organisations tell the world about those strategies. For instance: without PR, no-one would know about Selfridge’s brilliant Product Ocean campaign, now running for the eighth year to free cities and oceans of plastic water bottles.

Successful public relations CSR stories

There are numerous companies that excel at CSR. Here are three that have seen success with different approaches:

Lego’s CSR initiatives

Hands holding Lego figures. jpg

LEGO’s CSR initiatives support the company’s mission of building a better world for children. Recognising that playing is not only fun but a vital tool for learning, the brand has trained thousands of employees to become ‘Play Agents.’ These agents work with children in communities around the globe to lead them in the kind of fun, creative play that encourages learning and development.

CSR PR success: From an internal PR point of view, this initiative has been hugely successful. Not only is it valuable for the children taking part in the sessions, but employees get a huge amount of job satisfaction from making a genuine difference. Some have also become vocal brand ambassadors on social media as a result.

Pukka Herbs CSR activity

Kate Williams, CEO 1% for the Planet

Kate Williams, CEO 1% for the Planet

Bristol-based Pukka Herbs grew its idea of connecting people and plants from an initial idea to a global business, creating the fastest-growing organic tea brand in the UK.

From a give back point of view, Pukka is part of 1% for the Planet, a philanthropic organisation through which Pukka commits one per cent of its turnover to environmental and social causes.

In 2018, this amounted to £425,000.

CSR PR success: Pukka Herbs’ CSR efforts have propelled the company into the spotlight. In addition to the 1% for the Planet, all their teas are certified Fair for Life, one of the highest independent fair-trade standards in the world. Pukka is also a Certified B Corporation, signifying its ongoing commitment to support conservation through commerce. Their efforts have been rewarded with fabulous PR in the form of several 2degrees sustainable business awards.

Green Tomato Cars

Green Tomato Cars

Green Tomato Cars was London’s first, and largest, eco-friendly taxi service. When the company started out in 2006, their goal was to ‘deliver on customer expectations whilst tackling London’s clean air crisis.’ Believing the air quality to be ‘unacceptable’, they introduced a fleet of hybrid cars.

In 2015, they went a step further by trialling hydrogen fuel cell Toyota Mirais. The cars have performed so well, they’re expanding the fleet, in an attempt to ‘pave the way to an emission-free London.’

As an added bonus, the cars’ (limited) emissions are offset by a project in Uganda which subsidises fuel-efficient stoves for families.

CSR PR success: As a result of its continued efforts to reduce emissions, Green Tomato Cars is winning over environmentally-conscious customers, getting loads of positive media coverage, and establishing a reputation as a pioneer in hydrogen-powered transport. A textbook public relations corporate social responsibility triumph.

When CSR goes wrong

While there are clear PR benefits to be gained from promoting your CSR strategy, it should be approached with caution. Remember the Volkswagen emissions scandal? In 2015, the German car brand made international headlines for the wrong reasons after rigging its cars with software that ‘cheated’ mandated US emissions testing.

The company bragged about its revolutionary environmentally-friendly cars. But behind-the-scenes, they were poisoning the planet and lying to customers. It was a huge CSR and PR fail.

CSR PR lesson: Don’t make false claims or try to hoodwink the public and media. You’ll get found out and the fallout will be ugly.

Putting together a CSR strategy

Your CSR efforts don’t have to be as ambitious as the examples above. There are numerous things you can do on a smaller scale, such as:

  • Introduce a charity of the year scheme
  • Let employees volunteer at a charity of their choice one day a week
  • Sponsor a local sports team
  • Partner with a local charity and donate a percentage of every sale to them
  • Invest in energy-efficient lights
  • Scour eBay for vintage, second-hand office furniture rather than buying brand new pieces
  • Allow staff to telecommute

Incorporating CSR steps like these can go a long way to building your profile as a socially responsible company.

Why CSR is good PR

As we already know, public relations and CSR overlap. And an open and honest approach to corporate social responsibility is good public relations.

The ways CSR can boost your business include:

Improved public image

A report from the Reputation Institute, as published in Forbes magazine, found that 42% of how people feel about a company is based on their perception of its CSR activities. This means that nearly half of a company’s reputation is based on the public’s feelings about what the company is doing to support the community.

Going back to Green Tomato Cars, thanks to their commitment to CSR, they’re the first brand that springs to mind when customers are looking for an eco-friendly way to travel from A to B.

As a result, the company has grown from just four taxis in 2006, to a 600-strong fleet in 2019.

The lesson is, if you’re doing good, it’ll pay dividends in terms of brand perception. And from a PR standpoint, the media are more likely to cover businesses that show a genuine commitment to CSR.

Improved employee relations

CSR is great for internal PR. Employees want to feel proud of the company they work for and get job satisfaction at the end of each day. And let’s face it, few things in life are as rewarding as contributing to the greater good. A company that’s actively attempting to make a difference is a much more attractive proposition than one that isn’t. Don’t underestimate the power of CSR for retaining talent.

Having strong CSR values is also an excellent way to attract new talent. Millennials in particular are keen to work for socially-responsible companies, with 70% saying they’re more likely to choose to work for a company with a strong environmental agenda, and nearly 40% saying they’ve chosen a job in the past because the company performed better on sustainability.

The relationship between corporate social responsibility and public relations

Google’s Dublin office

Some of the world’s largest and most successful businesses are incorporating good corporate citizenship into their culture. And it’s paying off. They’ve developed solid reputations for doing good and turning their success into an opportunity to help others. Take for example, Google’s reputation as a caring employerLEGO’s Sustainable Materials Centre, or BMW’s commitment to saving the environment.

This is where PR and CSR converge. A strong brand reputation is at the heart of a sound public relations strategy. And the companies that enjoy the best corporate reputations are typically those that make a commitment to social responsibility. The reasons are many: a strong reputation can help an organisation differentiate its products and services, attract talent, and mitigate risk.

Take Microsoft. Widely recognised as a ‘good’ company, Microsoft’s environmental and social policies have not only increased the sustainability and resilience of the business, they’ve also played an important role in building its positive reputation. People all over the world have come to associate the brand with innovative humanitarian initiatives, like Bill Gates’ vaccination programme, Gavi.

In the highly competitive tech sector, this is a great way to differentiate the brand, build a loyal customer base and attract top talent, which is exactly what Microsoft does.

PR and CSR: Setting out your strategy

A good CSR strategy can lead to masses of positive PR. Here’s some advice to ensure it’s a success:

Choose your cause wisely

Your CSR strategy should complement the work you do and align with your values. If you’re a pet food supplier, why not partner with an animal charity like the RSPCA, or a local animal shelter? If you sell beauty products or women’s clothes, you’d do well to champion female-friendly causes like a breast cancer charity or a women’s refuge.

Think about the industry issue it addresses

Circular Design at Gap Inc.

Take a look at what other companies in your industry are coming under fire for. For example, the fashion industry has long been criticised for polluting the environment. The production and distribution of crops, fibres, and garments all contribute to differing forms of environmental pollution, including water, air, and soil pollution.

If your company is part of the fashion industry or is linked in some way, consider how you can help reduce pollution through your CSR initiatives.

Nike, H&M, Burberry, and Gap are doing their part via the ‘Make Fashion Circular’ initiative, which aims to redesign the fashion industry. Instead of the ‘take, make, waste’ model currently followed, they’re looking at ways to recycle the raw materials once clothes are ‘worn out’. They’re also looking at ways to minimise environmental pollution during the production process.

Give power to your employees

We all know that your staff are the backbone of your business, so give them a voice. Rather than leaving decisions to management, let staff decide what’s important when it comes to CSR.

Get them to vote for the charities or causes they feel passionately about and put forward suggestions for things your organisation can (and should) be doing to operate ethically and contribute to society. Or, take it a step further and create a team of employee representatives to shape your CSR practices. Staff will love you for it.

Ask your customers what’s important to them

Ask your customers what causes and issues they feel strongly about via polls and surveys. It’ll make them feel empowered and that their opinion is valued regarding issues that directly impact them.

They may even highlight a social or environmental issue that your company didn’t know about.

Think about what you can offer

Greggs Breakfast Club

Reflect on the key skills you have within your organisation. What can you offer better than other organisations? You need to combine these skillsets with what you’re passionate about.

A good example is UK bakery firm Greggs. What do they do best? Make delicious pastries and tasty snacks. And what are the passionate about? Ensuring every child starts the day with a nutritious, filling breakfast.

Their way of making a difference is raising money through the Greggs Foundation to fund the Greggs Breakfast Club, which contributes food to school breakfast clubs across the country.

Be honest

Once you’ve settled on a cause, be upfront about why you’re supporting it, so the public can understand why you care. Has someone in your company been affected by the issue you’re championing? People react positively when they hear personal stories – it’ll help your company connect with the public and media on a deeper level.

Don’t greenwash

Be honest in your communications. Avoid saying anything that could be seen as manipulative or misleading. If you can’t back up every claim you make, you’ll incur the wrath of your customers and the media. Remember Volkswagen.

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