Communicating Corporate Social Responsibility to a Cynical Public


Corporate social responsibility has gone mainstream. But unless corporations communicate their CSR achievements wisely, they risk being accused of greenwashing.

Corporate social responsibility, once seen as peripheral to companies’ main businesses, has been becoming standard practice, with an increasing number of businesses engaging in CSR activities. For example, in a 2007 global survey of corporate managers, the Economist Intelligence Unit found that the majority of respondents (55.2%) considered CSR a high or very high priority for their company, a significant increase from three years previously (33.9%). An even greater majority (68.9%) expected the importance of CSR to increase in the future.

Given that corporations are increasingly engaging in CSR activities, it makes sense to communicate those achievements to stakeholders. However, in publicizing CSR achievements, especially if they do so aggressively, corporations risk achieving the opposite result from what they intended — a so-called “boomerang response” described by Robert K. Merton and Patricia L. Kendall in 1944. Given the general public’s distrust of major corporations, it is not unreasonable for a corporation to fear that stakeholders will perceive attempts to communicate CSR achievements as “greenwashing.”

Greenwashing, in its narrow sense, refers to the use of environmentalism or green credentials to suggest that a company’s policies and products are environmentally friendly. More broadly, the term describes public relations aimed at giving the false impression that a corporation is genuinely engaged in CSR. It is reasonable to be concerned that even companies that seriously engage in CSR could be perceived cynically by stakeholders. After all, most stakeholders cannot directly witness a corporation’s CSR policies or initiatives and to a great extent must rely on the corporation’s own reporting.

A key challenge for managers, then, is to minimize stakeholder skepticism and communicate CSR achievements without being accused of greenwashing. To better address this challenge, this article draws on a collaborative research project by faculty from the IE School of Communication at IE University, the Judge Business School of the University of Cambridge and Fondazione Università IULM, in partnership with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. In this project, we investigated the CSR communication practices of the largest (in terms of revenue) 251 European corporations and conducted in-depth interviews with 69 managers handling CSR communications.

These corporations, located in Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, represented 11 industries: financial services and banks; insurance; textiles, retail and fashion; gas, water and electricity; oil and coke; food, beverages and tobacco; chemicals and pharmaceuticals; telecommunications; transport and automotive; retail and wholesale; and tourism and hospitality. Although our sample included only European corporations, which have been at the forefront of adopting CSR practices, we believe our findings have global relevance as dealing with CSR becomes increasingly important for corporations everywhere.

Myths, Risks and Lessons for Communicating CSR

The fact that negative news seems to spread faster than positive can make the risks of communicating CSR seem greater than they really are. Our findings indicate that many beliefs about the risks associated with CSR communication are exaggerated, and that companies that communicate honestly about their activities have little to fear. In the following paragraphs we discuss in more depth the myths and reality of CSR communications.

1. Don’t be afraid of the media. Some managers we spoke with believed that media outlets are “out to get” companies and are more interested in bad news than good. However, most managers felt this fear of the media is exaggerated and believed that while some media outlets are more critical than others, overall the media are willing to report fairly on corporate CSR activities.

Managers, therefore, should not be afraid to engage with the media and explain their companies’ positions and activities. If a company’s managers shy away from engaging with the media, the organization’s story will never come out, or someone else will tell it and possibly distort it.

2. Don’t underestimate the public. Given the complexities that often surround CSR activities, some managers were skeptical about whether corporations can effectively communicate CSR policies and activities. While these assumptions may have been true in the past, many managers noted that there has been growing interest in CSR activities and performance in recent years, and they said they believed the public to be capable of understanding CSR-related actions and issues. As a manager from Italy said, “Nowadays, there is fairly widespread knowledge of these subjects within the media and among opinion leaders,” and the public even “asks for more information about CSR actions.”

3. Address big issues head-on. When a company fails to address major problems head-on, as Exxon did in its delayed response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, it can compound the damage to the company’s reputation. Most managers we spoke with said that companies in industries such as tobacco or big oil should not try to gloss over the controversial issues and present themselves as CSR champions. “A good example of this is BP [PLC] with their ‘Beyond Petroleum’ campaign,” a manager from the U.K. said. “It can come back to bite.”

Instead, managers should address the big issues head-on. As another U.K. manager we interviewed said, “Don’t shy away from your material issues because they are difficult. Be honest and balanced in your communications, not just the good news stories. Respond to what your stakeholders are asking for; if you communicate what people are interested in, it is more difficult to be accused of greenwashing and PR.”

4. Don’t present a picture-perfect company. It is only natural for managers to want to share the good things about their company with the world. But stakeholders can be skeptical if everything seems too good to be true and interpret that as a sign that the company is hiding something. CSR activities should not be portrayed as the organization’s sole purpose. Corporate communications should present CSR activities as integrated into the company’s business and demonstrate that profit is not pursued without consideration for society. As a manager from Denmark said, “CSR engagements should never be the main topic of your communication activities, but complementary content.”

5. Control the conditions. Sometimes comments can be taken out of context because there is no opportunity to explain them, or because a company chose the wrong media outlet for a story. For example, a radio or TV show that does not allow time for participants to elaborate or put their actions in context might not be a good forum for communicating complex CSR issues. In addition, many managers we spoke with were skeptical about using social media, in particular blogs, to communicate CSR because of the risk of having to deal with critical responses.

Managers should try to create conditions that allow them to place their CSR actions in context and to communicate appropriately with different audiences depending on their level of familiarity with CSR. For communicating complex CSR matters, media that allow a company to expand on its actions through longer narratives, such as magazine inserts and well-designed websites, are preferable. As a Swiss manager we interviewed said, “If you have enough of their attention, you can explain convincingly.”

6. Use the whole organization. The idea that communicating a CSR agenda is the responsibility of only the communication or CSR department is a mistake. Stakeholders do not interact only with those departments, but with many different individuals and parts of the organization. It only takes a few people giving the wrong impression to undo the work of communication or CSR managers.

Communicating CSR should be the job of the whole organization — not in the sense that managers from other departments should communicate with the media, but in the sense that the rest of the organization should set a visible example of what is being communicated. While the communication department tells the world about a corporation’s CSR activities, the rest of the organization must show the world it believes this same message.

7. Do what you say. The managers we spoke with said they often see companies trying to cover up (greenwash) CSR deficiencies through CSR communication, and most agreed that this is not possible. No matter how effective or well-articulated a company’s communication strategy is, it cannot make up for a lack of CSR. Saying that your company engages in more CSR than it really does can backfire and delegitimize existing CSR initiatives.

The managers we interviewed agreed that companies should do what they say. Before trying to communicate a business’s CSR activities, it is crucial to ensure that its actions agree with the message. If the company has good CSR practices, they can be easily communicated. If not, the communications department cannot communicate what is not there.

Different companies will vary in which of the above lessons apply most to them. Companies that say they do more CSR than they actually do should understand that the public sees through such attempts. Companies also must understand that the whole organization communicates. On the other hand, companies that engage in high levels of CSR activities but do not communicate their achievements effectively need to engage more with the media and not underestimate the public’s ability to understand what they are doing. Finally, companies that engage in high levels of CSR activity and communication must be careful to avoid having that communication perceived cynically by stakeholders.

Managers responsible for communicating CSR to the public often face pressure from above as to what kind of communication strategies to pursue. Given that they cannot control all of a company’s decisions, managers communicating CSR must be aware of the risks they are susceptible to and which lessons might apply to them and their organizations.

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