So, what is the relationship between CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and PR (Public Relations)?
The short answer is PR can be both a blessing and a curse to CSR. It is a matter of which comes first and what is the intention.
Done properly and with a company that embraces the strategic and integrated nature of CSR, PR is a vehicle of sharing with the world the progress they are making, or what the world may not know about them.
Done improperly, for example when CSR is seen by the company as a marketing problem, the latest market fad, or a PR fix PR is tantamount to ‘greenwashing’ the ‘sins’ of a company. True CSR guides the company away from making the ‘sins’ (or mitigating them) in the first place.
CSR should be an integrated, sustainable, and systematic approach to business. It belongs as a core component to the strategies and structure of companies. CSR is about being good corporate citizens to all stakeholders stockholders, employees, customers, community, supply chain, and the environment. It is the old social contract idea, the right to exist as a company. It is about the sustainability of the business through integrity and smart business decisions that recognize and integrate the impact on and influence of all stakeholders. I like CSR International’s reworking of the CSR acronym as Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility as it speaks to the integrational aspects of CSR. They are calling it CSR 2.0.
Companies who do not understand that CSR is about business sustainability and integrity as much as it is about social programs, often make the mistake of making CSR a marketing or PR program/problem. By doing so they essentially “green-wash” their company. In my opinion, PR should lightly handle CSR initiatives until the CSR program has momentum and there is something to actually celebrate and brag about. Celebrating decency and expected behavior is not good PR on CSR. It is artificial and could cause more harm than good. PR should let the public know that there is a CSR program, that there will be a report, and what some of the programs are that are under development, or highlight ongoing/historical CSR efforts. Report on these activities, but not out of proportion to the other activities of the company.
As a career long change agent, I know that steering change in organizations takes time, embedding, and momentum. New CSR programs take time to mature and years to yield significant, sustainable results; though, quite often, there are substantial shifts that occur in the first year.
What you measure gets paid attention to. So, often among the first steps of CSR is measurement: taking an inventory on where the company stands with respect their impact on society, economy, and the environment. This is often accomplished through a GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) checklist report or a GHG (Green House Gas) report. This is merely a starting point. The true test of sustainability and a company committed to CSR is a history of improvement and performance. Unfortunately these initial documents tend to be fodder for PR and Marketing departments, which in their need for short term results and fantastic figures tend to overstate or understate the findings as they try to make the company look good. In CSR, however, the proof is in the year-to-year changes, the response from stakeholders, the integrity of the company’s actions and words.
CSR is about smart business practices. It is about constant improvement and integrity. PR is about reporting on the events as they occur or showcasing a history of events and trending. The danger, is when the showcasing precedes the actual impact.