The PR Take on CSR: "Corporate Responsibility Is Not Public Relations"

The PR Take on CSR: "Corporate Responsibility Is Not Public Relations"

How is the public relations and advertising world handling all the buzz being created by corporate responsibility? This was the issue at hand at the BBB CSR Forum III: Good Business 2010 organized by the Better Business Bureau earlier this week. Yesterday I highlighted some of the key quotes from Ernst & Young CEO Jim Turley's keynote address. As the event progressed, it was clear that the speakers as well as the attendees, who represented a wide array of industries—finance, consulting, media, nonprofits, public relations and advertising—were here to not only understand the implications and complications of corporate responsibility (CR), but also get a peek into how brand management and reputation-building were tightly knit with CR.

A Belief System For Your Company

Edelman's EVP for CSR-New York, Michael Holland while highlighting his firm's approach, emphasized that corporate responsibility was emerging increasingly as an indelible part of brand management for companies, although North American companies, while initially slow to embrace it, were quickly getting on board. Defining CR as "A belief system for a company" he broke its significance for companies into three segments: 1) the social and legal aspect; 2) its immersion into the operational model; and 3) how to leverage it for competitive share in the marketplace.

What is the ROI for corporate responsibility?

Citing a recent survey conducted by McKinsey, Holland said that the business case for corporate responsibility had never been clearer for companies. "Companies that paid attention to CSR in the last three years reported an increase in their share price of 43% against a 12% increase for those who didn't." At the same time, profits for the first segment of companies increased by 16% versus 7%. I've often noted that metrics and numbers speak louder than words. These then, need no further explanation. See more results from the McKinsey survey.

Noting that the pressure for accountability was no longer the voice of a few dedicated advocates and had shifted to mainstream demands from all stakeholders for a company, Holland stressed that the tipping point was already here: "CR cannot be ignored any longer. Shareholders, employees and clients are demanding it."

What is corporate responsibility all about?

Holland, interestingly, chose to answer this by focusing on the key misconceptions about corporate responsibility. Funnily enough his counter-intuitive tactic worked, bringing up several questions from the audience. He put it like this:

CSR ≠ Green
CSR ≠ Strategic Philanthropy
CSR ≠ Public Relations

CSR isn't PR, it's About Your Business Strategy

I have discussed in the past the huge difference between conducting brand management and reputation-building and immersing CR as a culture of change into your company's strategy. I asked Holland how he advises clients to walk that fine line. "First of all, it needs to start from the top. Secondly, it needs to part of a company's communication strategy. And finally you need to define what it means to track the progress of your corporate responsibility. The problem is that the marketplace believes that CSR is cause marketing and philanthropy. Our task is to overrule that and teach them that actually it's about business strategy."

How does CSR relate to Sustainability?

In response to a question from the audience, Holland put the disconnect succinctly, highlighting that the problem was the irregularity in the definition of "sustainability" and not the notion itself. "For North American companies, sustainability is about the environment. For European companies, it is about responsible corporate citizenship." And truth be told, corporate responsibility must encompass sustainability to be relevant and substantive.

Aman Singh is the CSR Editor at, where she focuses on how corporate diversity practices and sustainability translate into recruitment and strategic development. Her blog, In Good Company, discusses on many of these issues.