The CSR Media-Gap and Why It Matters

By Jack Curry, Media Strategist on Business, Media and Society; CSR and Contemporary Culture – First appeared on June 15th on BCLCblog

Top Ten Lists can be funny. David Letterman’s often are. Or sort of scary, like the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted or, frankly, the Billboard Top Ten Most Downloaded. (You tell me: which of those two TT Lists should Kei$ha be on?). 

But Katie Loovis’ “Top Ten Misperceptions About CSR,” posted here May 17, was neither scary nor funny. It was just plain right on.

At least for me it was, since as an editor working in major newspapers and magazines all my life, I have not only encountered some of these false impressions, I may have perpetuated a few. I am not alone. Most of the media gets it wrong. CSR: It’s just a “fad” (that came in at no. 6 on the list). CSR: It’s really “risk management” (No. 9). CSR: It’s just “PR.” (No 2.) OK, OK. The No. 1 misperception: It’s just “philanthropy.”

In most newsrooms, even those owned by corporations that are recognized for their CSR activities, I could have easily encountered (dare I say, muttered) those statements myself.

Unfortunately, the list reveals biases probably held by many Americans, not just the press. We’ve all seen the trust surveys that indicate a troublesome disconnect between business and consumers. So maybe reporters, editors and bloggers merely reflect the mindset of the general public when they toss off a pitch about a CSR program as “soft” or a “greenwash.” Hey, those are the no. 5 and no. 4 misperceptions, respectively, on the list compiled by your peers. (The list was generated in consultation with the BCLC’s Business and Society Working Group.)

But, I think CSR is misunderstood by the media for particular reasons which permit these common misperceptions to gain such traction.  Like so many biases, the “CSR Media Gap” is based in entrenched mindsets. And I am not adding an 11th misperception to the list when I insist, that yes, like so many other prejudices, the CSR Media Gap can be overcome by improving one thing: communications.

Perhaps the most telling indication of the CSR Media Gap is in the rankings themselves. The No. 10 reason, “It can’t be trusted,” is most likely the No. 1 bias about CSR in newsrooms.  As journalists, we are trained and rewarded NOT to trust. Doubt, skepticism, maybe even cynicism: these are the highly prized traits that lead to the blow-the-lid stories that win Pulitzers.

So, it isn’t just CSR that receives the “can’t be trusted” cold shoulder. Any story should be questioned. Ahh, a fireman saves a cat from a tree. My reaction: what was the cat doing up there in the first place?

That questioning is part of a journalist’s DNA, and exercising doubt is part of how he or she relates to the world outside the newsroom.  That’s a very different DNA than I heard Cargill Vice President Van Yeutter talk about at the BCLC’s Food Security Forum in DC last week. “Caring about issues, was part of culture” at Cargill he said “In the DNA.”  Yeutter exemplified how entrenched CSR was at Cargill with a story of an employee recently returned from volunteering in Central America who described his own company’s efforts there as “the most amazing thing he had ever seen.” Or more succinctly, he was “blown away.”

As a journalist, this was exciting stuff and made me want to know more, more about the program, more about the staffer. At USA TODAY, the New York Daily News and other newsrooms where I have worked, the programmed response will always be, and should always be: “Let me know all about it, so I can make my readers connect.”

Other misperceptions that made the TT list may also contribute to the CSR Media Gap. For example, No. 7: “How the company supports the CEO’s favorite charity.” Whoa!  Or No. 9: “Risk management tool.” For better or worst, media types will always look for such self-serving ulterior motives. The fact of the matter is, CSR efforts bring many advantages back to the company that sponsors them, from staff engagement to improved productivity to, well yes, executive feel-good reward.

But, in general editors have little understanding of reflexive benefit, those undeniable pluses well-run CSR programs offer internal stakeholders. For editors, the “good business gets out of business doing good” (to paraphrase BCLC’s motto) is never as easy a story to tell as just “business doing good.”

I remember well the negative impression created by the public relations director for one of the recording industry’s most important business organizations. She constantly insisted that I mention her CEO every time I wrote about the wonderful music-in-the-classroom programs they underwrote. I ended up not covering the program at all.

Just a note: Your internal media may also run into the landmines represented by the misperceptions on the list. Even though you control the messages and narratives, in- house materials that lack editorial perspective can run afoul the “CEO favorite charity” or “employee volunteerism” rap.  In fact, take a look at the Top Ten Misperceptions again, and it is almost a check list of traps that might await the next “Look What We Are Doing in Guatemala” newsletter being sent to employee in-boxes.   

My journalistic instincts were primed when, also at the Food Security Forum, DSM’s Hugh Welsh spoke passionately about staff commitment to the company’s global humanitarian efforts. In house, DSM, he said, has come to stand for “Do Something Meaningful.” He outlined a complex, yet strategic, partnership with the World Food Program that had resulted in 23 million nutritional sachets being delivered to hunger-challenged areas around the world. Third-world impact AND home team advantages: this is a one-two punch that should make an editor take notice.

I say “should” because there is one element of many success stories that flies right into the CSR Media Gap. Perhaps an unlikely CSR proponent, “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams summed up this reality best when, in a recent Time magazine philanthropy roundtable (May 31), he said, “The data from philanthropic groups can be so overwhelming that you can almost shut down and not feel the need.”

Metrics are essential to so much of CSR: the partnership goal setting, the sustainability agenda, the impact verification. But, journalists mostly want good stories; numbers help, but an editor knows his end-user, the reader, mostly wants to be touched, moved and informed. And, to continue quoting Abrams, “communicating emotional experiences” and the “storytelling component” are keys to closing the CSR Media Gap.

A mother/farmer in Senegal who, thanks to a corporation’s CSR, has been educated in nutrition and small business management, isn’t a fad (No. 6 on the list), isn’t an exercise in legal risk management (No. 9), isn’t soft (No. 5). And no matter how cynical and unbelieving an editor may be, it is in no way PR (No. 2.) You know, told right, I might listen to that woman’s success story and I might cover it. I might just see it as “philanthropy.” And even though that is the number one misperception about CSR on the list, from this editor’s desk it looks like very good business.

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2 responses

  1. I love reading such positive news about CSR and the difference it has made. Although I agree most people I talk to often don't know what CSR is or they think it's just a PR stunt and doesn't actually do any good at all.

    I think as CSR has been proven to be effective for businesses in so many areas more people should be aware of what is actually is.

    You should also read this article on common CSR misconceptions, it's in the same vein as Kate Lovis's article >


  2. Corporate Executives are caught in lies every day and they use these types of feel good programs to either soothe guilt or deflect attention from their other lies and deceptions. These programs may help others, but it does not make up for all their evil deeds. So called “life science” companies are the worst. In 100 years they will be talked about like snake oil salesmen are today.

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