Corporate Social Responsibility is Not a PR Exercise

by Gaia Grant

When Corporate Social Responsibility first became a corporate buzz word and an indispensable corporate activity, it now seems pretty clear that the focus for some organizations was on using it as a fabulous PR exercise – one which supposedly demonstrated the authentic care and concern at the heart of organizations that had previously seemed to exist previously purely for producing stakeholder profits. New socially aware ‘visions’ and ‘missions’ and strategically linked PR and advertising campaigns ensured that the once narcissistic navel gazing of the nineties evolved into an open global empathy – even if most organizations did need to get back to the business of making money once the fanfare died down.

In this wildly blossoming fertile CSR period petrochemical companies started coming up with green solutions, cigarette companies took an interest in cancer research, soft drink and junk food companies became concerned about children’s nutrition.  The cynic could be excused for thinking that the whole movement was simply an attempted do-gooder whitewashing exercise designed to hide the real issues and give an apparently angelic appearance to even the most devilish of enterprises. And yet a movement had begun which had the potential to dramatically transform the ways we think about and conduct business…

Taking the challenge seriously

With every possible organization now jumping on board the CSR train, it is becoming clear that only those that are taking the responsibility seriously and finding authentic ways to engage in socially responsible actions are going to really benefit in the long run and survive the rough road of critical analysis ahead. Most consumers are now savvy enough to recognize when an advertising or PR campaign is just that. In order to really meet the challenge and have true social impact, rather than trying to embed these campaigns into pre-existing structures that, organizations will need to start rebuilding basic principles and values from the ground up.

We now have a number of corporate clients who have taken this challenge seriously. Several have developed new roles in the organization specifically aimed at building and incorporating detailed CSR strategies at all levels – clients who now insist that CSR activities and events are in fact not publicised so that the focus is on ensuring the intervention is authentic rather than a superficial band-aids.

Finding the best way to connect

Prior to establishing Tirian in its current model, Andrew and I participated in a number of programs that enabled us to utilize the resources we have access to and share the skills we have been lucky enough to develop with others. Our range of experiences has included assisting with lifeskills programs for an orphanage in El Salvador, teaching contemporary educational principles in a University in the Philippines, delivering drug education workshops in the Nagaland tribal regions north of India, and developing a health curriculum with a local and international team for the Health and Education departments for schools in India. All of these experiences taught us a lot about different ways of life and different needs and opened us up to how important it is to find long term strategies and solutions for ongoing development.

This final experience with developing the Health Curriculum in India particularly enabled us to really see how a well targeted intervention can have a deep long term impact. Thirteen years since we were involved in the initial project team to get the project underway, 25 million children in schools across a number of states in India now have access to detailed curriculum resources in every school, have teachers trained in how to run the curriculum with maximum educational impact, and students who are receiving a consistent quality education in vital health and life skills enabling them to educate their communities for the full 12 years of their schooling life. What an amazing opportunity to positively connect with and impact the lives of others!

Creating unique opportunities for action

For a number of years, while we were busy building Tirian internationally, we felt we only had the time and energy to focus on keeping the business alive and feeding the beast we had created. Our ability to give became reduced to giving money from the company profits. It was satisfying that at least we could continue giving in some way, but there reached a point where it became frustrating for me that this was all we had the time and energy to do. I had been mistakenly waiting for the time that I could step back from my company Director responsibilities and go back into volunteer work. But that time never came.

Instead I had to consciously restructure our company and begin to find ways to share responsibilities more so that I could have the time and energy to focus on developing our own socially responsible organization. I also had to stop thinking we could only focus on ensuring the company was profitable OR focus on ensuring we had positive life-asserting values.

In ‘The End of Charity’ Nic Frances talks about the need to develop a value centered market economy – a “broader definition of value that includes the environmental and social impact of the decisions and actions of individuals, business-people, non-government organizations, corporations, politicians and policy makers.” He claims that we all need to become ‘social entrepreneurs’.

I discovered a few vital principles for building social entrepreneurship:

  • Never say never: When it comes to taking action, there is always a way to move forward
  • Take time to make time: ‘Not having enough time’ can never be an excuse if social responsibility is truly a priority
  • Opportunities for action need to be consciously created: Positive opportunities for action don’t just happen, you need to make them happen
  • It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario: You don’t need to focus on business success OR social responsibility – a well built organization will ensure both are successful dealt with

Building a sustainable basis for action

A social entrepreneur locates the interface between a social goal and building a consumer base for that service that delivers that goal. They find practical ways to support both the needs of the organization as a commercial enterprise and their social consistence.

“Social business is about using market values: identifying a problem, understanding the costs and the benefits of both the problem and the solution, and selling the benefits at a greater value than the costs. If you can get that mix right, and there is a profit margin, entrepreneurs will come in and fill that market gap. The problem will be addressed and eventually solved. When entrepreneurs or businesses use market forces to deliver goals of social or environmental change, that is social business.”
Nic Frances

What actions are you going to take in your organization for sustainable social responsibility?

One Response to “Corporate Social Responsibility is Not a PR Exercise”

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