Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

CSR is More Than a PR Strategy: How Companies Live Up to Their Claims

By 3p Contributor

By Anna Johansson

Everywhere you look, the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is taking off. Small businesses and multi-national corporations alike are getting involved, and it’s easy to feel like the business world is finally moving in the right direction. But what’s really happening beneath the surface?

The state of CSR

It’s hip and trendy to have a CSR strategy. By and large, consumers have made it clear that they’re interested in doing business with companies that not only prioritize competitive prices and quality products, but also sustainable practices. This has led thousands of companies, who would have never otherwise considered CSR, to develop seemingly robust strategies.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with pursuing CSR out of marketplace demand, this hollow foundation often creates issues. When you look past mission statements, core values, and well-crafted quotes from company executives, it becomes clear that many (not all) CSR strategies are nothing more than facades for otherwise standard business activities.

Sometimes this is unintentional and other times it’s meant to serve as a distraction. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that most companies with faulty CSR strategies fall under the “unintentional” umbrella. In these cases, one of the primary culprits is a lack of involvement from executive leadership.

“Although numerous surveys have touted the increased involvement of CEOs in CSR, we have found that CSR programs are often initiated and run in an uncoordinated way by a variety of internal managers, frequently without the active engagement of the CEO,” says V. Kasturi Rangan, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School and cofounder of the HBS Social Enterprise initiative. This leads to confusion and fragmented decision making that tends to wilt under pressure.

Another common reason some CSR strategies end up being hollow is because the majority of the focus is on public relations and marketing. Many companies are so focused on making sure that their CSR strategy reflects well on the brand publicly that they don’t have enough time and resources to actually live up to their claims.

Practice what you preach

“It’s time to move from thought leadership to action leadership,” says Charlotte West, director of Business in the Community. “We can genuinely make the world a better place by practically embedding purpose in our brands. And a good, resilient purpose should have sustainability at its heart.”

In order for businesses to practice what they preach and make CSR about more than PR and marketing, it takes a concerted effort from every decision maker within the organization. To paint a practical picture of what it looks like to put CSR first behind the scenes, let’s look at some examples of things businesses can do.

1. Get employees on board

The first thing businesses need to do is show their employees that they’re serious about CSR – even when nobody is looking. If you really want to make a splash, plan a retreat and sit down with your employees to discuss short-term and long-term goals.

Get out of the office and go somewhere unique. Give some sort of adventurous team-building activity a try – such as zip lining or perhaps rock climbing – and use it as a springboard for brainstorming ideas and getting the all-important employee buy-in. Once employees are on board, the higher ups can proceed with crafting a balanced strategy.

2. Study what others are doing

It can be helpful to study what other brands are doing well. Ikea is one company that totally nails CSR from start to finish. Everything they do is consistent with their message and this alignment allows for positive results. Other companies to keep an eye on include Starbucks, Disney, NuSkin, Microsoft and Toms shoes.

3. It’s not about you

One thing you need to consistently remind yourself is that CSR isn’t about you. It’s not about how many wonderful things you’re doing for the environment or local community. It’s about how the organization is positively impacting others and lessening our negative impact.

When businesses shift their focuses outwards, suddenly, CSR becomes less of a PR agenda and more of a push for making the world a better place. It’s anything but easy, but the right mindset precedes the right action.

Putting it all together

When it comes down to it, CSR is not something that should be taken lightly. While the marketplace is telling businesses that they want to work with brands that take CSR seriously, this shouldn’t lead to the formation of hollow strategies that are inconsistent, fragmented, and independent of executive leadership. In order to make CSR worth the time and effort, it’s imperative that businesses practice what they preach behind the scenes.

Image credit: Pixabay

Anna Johansson is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant. A columnist for Entrepreneur.com, HuffingtonPost.com and more, Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

TriplePundit has published articles from over 1000 contributors. If you'd like to be a guest author, please get in touch!

Read more stories by 3p Contributor