Fortune 500 companies spend over a whopping $20 billion annually on CSR or “corporate social responsibility” projects globally. CSR programs like philanthropy and volunteer work have been proven to not only help strengthen a companies brand reputation but boost employee morale and help leading companies attract and retain top talent. Now, at a time when 87% of Americans say they want to support brands that align with their social values, the stakes for ensuring your CSR efforts are visible has never been greater. But there is a fine line between publicly demonstrating your commitment to the cause, and paying lip service. And if you are only doing the latter, you will be called out for it.
So how can you make sure that your social causes are getting the publicity they deserve in a way that also strengthens your company’s reputation? Here are a few CSR PR strategies to consider:
Today it isn’t enough to make a difference through your pocketbook, and if your only approach to CSR is yearly charitable donations, you’re doing it wrong. Consumers expect businesses to leverage their power to make structural changes that can lead to positive social impact.
Your C-suite, down to your project managers, need to be able to express why you choose to champion the causes that you do. If your organization is giving money for instance to racial justice organizations, you need to be able to articulate why racial justice is an important cause for your organization – beyond just that it’s important to the cultural zeitgeist.
This also means that as an organization you need to be willing to be open to how you structurally are engaging with the issues you address. So you’re giving to racial justice organizations – can you also share how you are addressing DEI within your own ranks? How are you approaching racial bias in hiring? How are you ensuring you have pay and leadership equity?
For example, PwC has made DEI a core component of their CSR efforts for years, even building out their own public policy arm to fight for racial justice and reform on the policy level.
PwC earns headlines for its CSR work because it’s able to combine charity with commitment. Just this past week the professional services firm announced a new investment in training for 25,000 Black and Hispanic individuals with a promise to hire half of them. This willingness from PwC to not just help individuals access opportunities, but to provide them with the opportunities themselves, positions the firm as a leader in equitable workforce development, and sets them apart from the myriad of other companies giving money to training for diverse talent, but lacking any real commitment to hiring diverse talent.
Showing that as a company you are committed to improving and learning how to “walk the walk” lends credibility to your CSR as more than just a way to appease customers.
It’s natural to want to get some positive attention for the positive work that you do. But while your company may be giving money and making organizational change in support of a cause, there are dozens of nonprofits and advocacy organizations that have been fighting this fight longer, and thus bring a greater credibility and situational awareness to the work, as well as a closer connection to the human impact. These are the voices you can and should be lifting up.
Consider your nonprofit or advocacy partners and give them a seat at the table. If you are sponsoring an event or conference, leverage your involvement to give a nonprofit partner a seat on the stage. Or do like McKinsey, a long time thought leader on the future of work, they have a great track record of uplifting voices of individuals advocating for everything from wage increases to affordable child care. They recently lent their name to co-author a joint op-ed with our client Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU advocating for a federal job guarantee. A labor union with 1.9 million members, SEIU has decades of organizational experience and insight fighting for policy change around workplace benefits, which McKinsey was able to elevate in a very impactful way.
Driving sustainable social impact isn’t always about jumping in to champion the cause de jour that’s currently going viral on social media. Brands that have a sustained reputation for supporting one thematic issue area not only are more authentic, but are able to develop deep issue area expertise over time, which can help elevate their brand even further.
Many companies quickly pivoted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to take on a “first responder” role through the crisis. But short-term focuses on making hand sanitizers and masks—while noble—have caused many to miss out on the opportunity to build a long-term CSR strategy around meeting our current moment.
Our client Goodwill has partnered with a number of corporate leaders who are making long-term commitments to lending their own expertise to support national efforts to get Americans back to work in a post-pandemic economy. As part of the Rising Together coalition, companies like Comcast, Google, Indeed and Lyft, have dedicated money and resources over multiple years in service of expanding access to opportunity for disadvantaged job seekers. This approach, rooted in making a pledge on impact over a longer period of time, creates a sense of permanence and shows a dedication to a cause beyond just some quick press. In a subsequent feature, The New York Times pointed out, Google’s involvement with Goodwill in the creation of skills training programs at career centers across the country, has resulted in hundreds of alumni over multiple years, who are able to share their first-person success stories from this joint effort.
At the end of the day, CSR is a noble and necessary effort for corporations to continue to grow their brands in a society that is increasingly socially aware and engaged. By grounding your PR in authentic strategies focused on the cause rather than the corporation, your brand can still earn some well-deserved credit for all the good work you are doing to make the world a better place.