Corporate Responsibility communication: from scepticism to trust

• 7 minute read • 10/07/2019
Reputation management
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It is now widely known that corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become indispensable for an organisation’s success. And although many organisations recognise the added value of CSR, we see from holistic reputation management that the actual meaning of CSR has changed. So what does this mean for your organisation’s reputation? And how do you implement, and communicate, with regard to CSR? This is the focus of the final segment of our four-part series on reputation management.

From profit to value

The terms corporate social responsibility (CSR), corporate sustainability (CS) and corporate responsibility (CR) are many times used interchangeably in business. Sometimes it refers to the environmental aspect, but sometimes also to social involvement. In reputation management – in particular, the seven reputation pillars of RepTrak © – the Citizenship pillar is in reference to making an active contribution to society, the environment and well-being, and thereby encompasses the classic definition of CSR. However, reputation today is less about CSR and more about holistic Corporate Responsibility (CR).

Organisations are continually under the watchful eye of consumers and other stakeholders who demand that these organisations not only engage with society from a social aspect, but also conduct ethical and sustainable (environmentally-friendly) business, provide reliable leadership, demonstrate fair employment — and transparently communicate all of this. We see a shift here: organisations no longer have to “do things right”, but “do the right thing” in terms of social, fiscal, environmental and employer responsibility.

“To earn and maintain a strong to excellent reputation, organisations must deliver in the areas of social, fiscal, environmental, and employer responsibility.” – Reputation Institute

Corporate Responsibility in transition

An important turning point in the shift of what CSR actually means for organisations is the growing scepticism among stakeholders. Organisations and their social activities are under the scrutiny of stakeholders, and this is the result of two important factors that fuel stakeholder scepticism: a lack of knowledge about the CR motives of organisations and learnings of past greenwashing affairs.

One of the most important facets of CR: trust. Although impact, responsibility and reliability are of paramount importance, many organisations face a challenge when it comes to stakeholder confidence. CR was (and still is) seen by many organisations as “something that had to be”. Organisations many times follow the trend of using CSR only as a profitable tool. This has damaged stakeholders’ confidence in organisations because it displays a lack of straightforwardness. Greenwashing activities in particular, whereby an inaccurate picture of CSR business behaviour is deliberately created, have prompted scepticism among stakeholders.

3 steps for an effective CR communication strategy

The critical, and increasingly vocal, “stakeholder movement” has triggered the so-called Catch 22 of CR communication: organisations are many times forced to participate in CR, but are at the same time discouraged from certain CR communications for fear of backlash when expectations aren’t met. The biggest challenge for corporate communication and PR professionals involved with CR is therefore to overcome any stakeholder scepticism and ignorance regarding CR motives. Three important steps in helping to overcome these challenges are: finding the right issues, choosing the right topics and effective CR communications.

#1 From organisation to issue

Involvement in CR activities is of great importance for organisational survival in our current, rapidly-changing media landscape. Organisational survival is no longer just dependent upon communication with the right stakeholders, but also upon finding the most important issues to be involved with. However, many organisations struggle with choosing the right issues when it comes to CR.

With the increasing number of (online) media platforms, not only organisations, but also individuals have the opportunity to share their views regarding CR with a larger audience. Many organisations today have lost control over communications regarding their company. An important shift in the (online) media landscape is that nowadays it’s not the organisations that are the centre of communication, but the issues.

It is therefore of great importance that you as an organisation find the right issue arenas: the (offline and online) platforms where stakeholders discuss social issues. With the help of social media monitoring, you as a communication professional can act as the “social antenna” of the organisation: by picking up any signals and warnings early on that may be potentially harmful to your organisation, and also being able to find social topics that could prove to be an opportunity for your organisation.

#2 From following to innovating

If you have identified social issues, through media monitoring, that are important to your target group and could influence your organisation, then it’s important to choose issues that you, as a communication department, will focus on.

As an organisation, you should always opt for CR activities that match what you stand for and that are aligned with the expectations of the target group. Practice what you preach, in other words: do what you promise and say you’ll do, so your stakeholders don’t get the feeling that you’re greenwashing. Stay inspired by the CR activities of other organisations so you don’t “miss the boat”. But be careful: don’t just blindly imitate the CR activities of these organisations. Listen to stakeholders, respond to (new) social issues when there is a demand, innovate and keep improving; in this way you can strengthen your market positioning.

#3 From sending to dialogue

In order to meet the expectations of their stakeholders, organisations need to involve them in social issues. Regular communication regarding social activities, products and impact is an important part of this. A common mistake here is when organisations use one-way communication when informing stakeholders about CR activity; for example, through press releases and reports.

Because CR is a social issue, it is important that communication with the public shifts from just sending it out to more of a dialogue. In the so-called issue arenas in particular, it is important that you as an organisation anticipate and participate. The job as a communication professional is to participate in the public debate to facilitate discussion about issues. Conversations and issue arenas without your participation as an organisation can damage your reputation.

Inform stakeholders about the CR activities and motives of your organisation. However, try not to control the conversation too much out of fear of backlash, because it is precisely this that can lead to possible conflict and hostility. Start from the principle of co-creation and be transparent about business operations in order to gain trust from stakeholders and combat any scepticism.

Give your brand reputation a boost!

Good CR activities and communication are therefore of great importance. As an organisation you’ll need to change your point of view on stakeholder management. Don’t just participate in CR because your competitors are, but ask yourself strategic questions like: “What issues and platforms are relevant to the future of my organisation?” and “What issues and platforms offer opportunities for interaction with specific target groups?”. Don’t be daunted by CR communications out of fear of backlash, but be transparent and innovative, and engage in dialogue with stakeholders: this way you can boost your reputation and at the same time make your CR activities a huge success.

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