Four steps to corporate social responsibility communication – how to avoid common pitfalls

Everyone is engaged in corporate social responsibility (CSR) communication these days, but all CSR communication is not useful. If all it amounts to are empty words and greenwashing, it is unproductive. Post-Doctoral Researcher Laura Olkkonen of the LUT School of Business and Management gives your company guidelines to better CSR communication.

1 Define your goal or theme

Responsibility is a vast concept – in Olkkonen's words, a hurricane phenomenon – that reaches far and wide. One way to communicate about corporate social responsibility is to focus on a theme or goal. That will make your company easier for consumers to remember.

If CSR communication is too detailed or extensive, the recipient may have trouble discerning what is essential. The organization should connect responsibility to a larger entity and declare what it is doing to solve the world's problems.

Business enterprises have usually been expected to describe themselves in one sentence. The current trend is for this sentence to include a goal to achieve change. If the business sets a public goal, such as becoming carbon-negative by a certain year, making the matter public will motivate the business to make more of an effort.

"This is called aspirational talk. Research shows that making a public declaration adds pressure to achieve the goal. A public aspiration may also change the organization itself."

2 Try corporate activism

The time for neutral corporate communication is over. All businesses are expected to take part in changing the world. Also Finnish companies are starting to give corporate activism a shot.

Corporate activism refers to activism by companies. Its aim is also to challenge the public.

Even if a company wishes to aim for neutrality in its operation, it may no longer be able to do so. The smallest choices made by the company may be interpreted as taking a stand despite efforts to the contrary.

"Mental connections are often strong in people when they draw conclusions about a company's actions", Olkkonen points out.

As an example, Olkkonen relates the case of Nabisco, an American manufacturer of cookies and snacks that sold animal crackers in a box depicting caged circus animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an influential animal rights organization, criticized the cookie company for cashing in on circus animals held in captivity. Nabisco addressed the issue by inviting representatives of PETA to a discussion. As an outcome, both Nabisco and PETA communicated about a successful solution: the cracker box was redesigned to portray animals in their natural habitat.

3 Choose your side

Some time has already passed since the cookie case. Laura Olkkonen says that it is more difficult for companies today to react to similar situations – especially if criticism is based on random outcries on social media.

Businesses need to come to terms with the fact that they cannot please everyone.

"Companies need to prepare for uproar that is difficult to anticipate. It is better to take charge and choose the side you want to agree with." That makes it easier to manage the company's public image."

4 Engage the entire organization

CSR communication in organizations no longer rests on the shoulders of one or two people. Responsibility is of high strategic importance and can steer and change the organization.

CEOs are more eager to speak up about corporate social responsibility, which Olkkonen considers a positive trend.

"It tells a story about how responsibility thinking runs through the entire organization – all the way to the top."

CSR communication has in a way experienced inflation and is no longer sufficient on its own. Companies need to do more to make an impact. Impact reports are the new black, so to say; they already carry more weight than CSR reports.

The challenge is how to assess the success of impacts. Tools for this are only in their development stage. In their absence, companies are having a hard time demonstrating how they have made an impact on stakeholders or customers.
The solution may lie with the company's employees.

"People increasingly need to feel their work has a purpose. Job seekers are interested in how their future employer influences society and the environment. Motivated employees are easier to engage and inspire to do corporate social responsibility work. They are also the best ambassadors for responsibility and impact within the organization and beyond it."


More information:

Post-Doctoral Researcher Laura Olkkonen, +358 50 3236310, laura.olkkonen@lut.fi

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