Monday, July 23, 2007

A Hot Topic - CSR Communications

When we were planning the July PRSA breakfast program, we knew that corporate social responsibility and communications would be an interesting subject based on the number of recent articles that we'd seen in mainstream and PR publications over the past several months. But we had no idea how passionate and involved our audience would be.

As a moderator I was prepped with a full page of questions - and only got through three before our very-engaged audience started to raise their hands! Why is this such a hot topic?

Our three panel participants - Andy Fouche with Starbucks, Megan Behrbaum with REI and Josh Chaitin with The Frause Group - articulated it well. It's not just enough for consumers to purchase any old product to fill their needs. These days, consumers want to purchase products and support companies that are following through with a deeper committment to "doing the right thing" - perhaps it is to fill a selfish desire to create a perception of responsibility on the consumer's part or perhaps it is truly a deeper seeded interest in social responsibility. Either way, we can't avoid it!As Andy Fouche stated, "Customers used to be just buy a great cup of coffee. Now, they want to know the story behind the coffee - about the farmers, the procurement, and everything else that goes into making it. And they want to know that it's done in a responsible way."

Our presenters reminded us that companies make sure their committment isn't just a bunch of "green washing." The risks are high when you say one thing but do another! They also suggested that companies should consider looking at focus areas that have direct ties into their missions - for example, Megan Behrbaum mentioned REI's support of the trails program, which is a perfect match for the outdoor clothing and equipment retailer.

A common theme throughout the program was the challenge that we all face of further developing the understanding of the importance of incorporating CSR communications into a broader communications strategy - and getting our bosses and clients to buy off on it. In our communication about this program we shared figures from PR Week: "Positive CSR information has led 72% of the respondents to purchase a company's product or services and 61% to recommend the company to others. Conversely, negative CSR news has led 60% to a boycott a company's products and services. At the same time, CSR also creates brand loyalty among key stakeholders and helps retain high-quality employees."Our presenters confirmed these findings, sharing ways that they've been able to measure the impact of CSR communications through targeted surveys and sales return.

To learn more, presenter Josh Chaitin offered some great resources on this intriguing topic:

The Sustainability Advantage & The Next Sustainability Wave (both by Bob Willard - New Society Publishers). Both of these books discuss specific steps for creating more sustainable, socially responsible businesses, and attempt to quantify the benefits gained.

Mapping the Journey (Lorinda Rowledge, Russell Barton, et al, Greenleaf Publishing). This book provides several case studies of companies/organizations adopting thorough CSR strategies. Some very useful insights.

Cradle to Cradle (William McDonough & Michael Braungart, North Point Press.) This book is really focused on the way we make/manufacture things and how we can get beyond the idea of a product having only one useful life. The book itself is printed not on paper, but on some kind of recycled polymer (kinda cool).

It's Not Easy Seeing Green (Josh Chaitin, Sustainable Industries Journal Green Marketing Newsletter.) This is a link to an article I (Josh) wrote for the SIJ's newsletter: - I think users may need to create an account to access this, but it's free and, I hope, useful.

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