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Top 5 Signs Your CSR Communications Strategy and Report Misses the Mark

September 22, 2009

Over a year ago, I ran into a very senior executive who worked for a company that shall remain nameless. We were talking over cocktails before a charity dinner began and I quizzed him about his company’s CSR efforts.

“Oh yea!” he said happily, “It’s at the center of everything we do.” For a moment, I became excited and intrigued, hoping to hear something new about this company’s CSR implementation strategy. He then continued his explanation by giving vague descriptions of the company’s philanthropic initiatives. That was it. That’s all he knew.

Try as we might, the CSR “community” still can’t seem to break down all the barriers to our field: few people outside of our circles – most alarmingly, the executives who are supposed to tout our work to shareholders and stakeholders – know what CSR is. The failure of those around us to grasp what we do isn’t necessarily their fault – it’s ours.

We need to communicate more effectively and strategically. And to do so we can take lessons from strategic marketing: in order to change behaviors, you first need to change attitudes, but only after changing awareness. How to do that will be a future column, but first here are five signs that your CSR communications strategy needs a little or a lot of work:

SIGN #1: PICTURES AREN’T WORTH 1,000 WORDS

Thankfully it’s been a number of years since I’ve seen the ultimate worst sign that a CSR report is stuck in an old habit: a picture of children of all different races holding up an oversized globe. It’s a cliché that reflects a lack of imagination in how CSR reports are created and communicated. While it is sometimes appropriate to have imagery in a CSR report, if the first thing you notice about your company’s CSR report is the smiling children, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Using too many pictures is a definite sign you’re emphasizing the wrong information or, worse, hiding a lack of content.

SIGN # 2: BUILD THE PDF AND THEY WILL COME

It takes a long time and a lot of resources to put together a GRI-based CSR report. Trust me, I’ve been there. If the results of your efforts consist of creating a PDF version of your report and putting it up on your company’s web site, mailing printed copies to a stakeholder list, and maybe a press release: your communications strategy definitely lacks. There are few people who will take the time to download your PDF or thumb through the copy you sent them. Your report will most likely be read by the people who already know how to spell CSR. Alternatively, if you’re so lucky, your report will likely become a mouse pad when the end user is at a coffee shop and has nothing else to use to move his wireless mouse. Likewise, if your external communications efforts solely involve putting out a press release on CSRwire.com – you’re most likely expecting consumers to come in droves to read the report simply because it’s there.

SIGN # 3: I THINK CONSUMERS CARE ABOUT WHAT I DO

Face it, your CSR report bores the general consumer. We should stop pretending that CSR reports should be written for the average person. Instead, they should be written for the people who inform the general consumer: the CSR experts, the trade media, the general media, etc. Mr. and Mrs. Smith simply do not care enough about your water purification program in Nigeria and they aren’t going to seek out information about “best practices.” Your communications strategy (and report) needs to reflect that fact.

SIGN # 4: LISTS, LISTS, AND MORE LISTS

The first thing I did this morning was wake up. Then, I walked my dog. After that I ate breakfast and showered. Is that interesting to you? Sure, there are a lot more interesting ways I can describe the beginning of my morning, but ultimately I lead a relatively uneventful life. Likewise, if your CSR report consists of simply listing your accomplishments, awards, and how specific plants and distribution centers have done a great job recycling – to me, it means your CSR initiative isn’t managed well and lacks integration. If you’re tempted to boil down your accomplishments to what one employee in Tuscaloosa did to change the world, you better think twice about what you’re trying to say.

SIGN # 5: A GLOSSED-OVER FACE REVEALS UNDERLYING PROBLEMS

Remember that executive I mentioned? If you get into a conversation with one of your execs and his/her face glosses over when CSR comes up, it means you have more work to do communicating internally. Executives are hired and are usually paid well because they are experts in their field. Their exposure to other fields is limited to one-page, bullet-pointed briefing documents that, by the way, they don’t have time to read.

So you better make sure you know who you’re supposed to educate and influence internally (outside of your department) before they run into someone at the next cocktail party.

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The writer is the editor of CitizenPolity.com —  You can contact him at JamesERatcitizenpolitydotcom or follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/jepsteinreeves

Copyright 2009 – CitizenPolity & James Epstein-Reeves – Not to be used without the written permission of CitizenPolity or the author.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2009 5:08 pm

    Great post – should make all CSR communications strategists think twice about how they’re communicating their org’s beliefs/values/acts/accomplishments/results.

    JK

  2. James Epstein-Reeves permalink*
    September 23, 2009 2:06 pm

    Thanks for the note. As is always the case with communications – take your time and rethink your approach: there’s probably a better way to say it and a better medium.

  3. March 21, 2010 6:41 am

    hi james, excellent post with some very good points. CSR reports, which you know I strongly advocate, are only one aspect of a corporation’s activities and communications. Sometimes I ask Companies I consult to when they are talking report report report : “What do you really want? A responsible business or a report? ” First, the Company needs to have a strong CR or Sustainability program, then report. And as you point out, the way they report/communicate is critical to reinforcing the program and engaging key stakeholders. Regretfully, the attention paid to internal CR communications and education in most Companies is minimal. I can only guess that they dont go to as many cocktail parties as you do! Thanks for great insights! elaine
    http://www.b-yond.biz/en
    www,csr-reporting.blogspot.com

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