This article first appeared on Towards Sustainable Business and is republished with permission. 

A key challenge in communicating an organisations’ corporate social responsibility initiatives is making those initiatives sound like they matter – to the organisation.  That requires an understanding that they do in fact matter, that they are more than just a ‘nice to have’.

All too often companies write up their social, community and environmental initiatives as ‘case studies’, as nice things to do with a smattering of PR fluff thrown in to emphasise how good the company is to do them.  Not very convincing – and it also misses the point – that ‘doing good’ is essential to an organisation’s success.

It is not enough to simply acknowledge the link between doing the right thing and delivering value to stakeholders – a company needs to set out its targets and say how this will be achieved.

And bragging without facts to back it up is never a good idea.

VW must regret saying in its 2014 annual report:

“Thanks to its corporate culture, Volkswagen is better suited than almost any other company to combine a modern understanding of responsibility and sustainability with the traditional values of running a business…” (p118)

and the claim by the CEO, Martin Winterkorn (p4):

“Our pursuit of innovation and perfection and our responsible approach will help to make us the world’s leading automaker by 2018 – both economically and ecologically.”

VW’s commitment to responsibility and ecology have been questioned and the fact that they claimed a strong commitment to these values only serves to increase the mistrust.

So what makes a good corporate social responsibility communicator?

A good corporate social responsibility or sustainability communicator has these attributes:

  • Understands the key social and environmental issues which concern your stakeholders and shares those concerns
  • Accepts the importance of communicating without embellishment or bragging
  • Understands how your social responsibility work adds value to your organisation and fits with its strategy
  • Has good relationships with those collecting and analysing social and environmental data and the rest of the communications team
  • Knows when and how to use social media

Will VW recover from its tarnished reputation? | Image: Gerry Lauzon via Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Five essentials to communicating corporate social responsibility

And, when it comes to the communications themselves these communicators know to:

  1. Leave out the self-congratulatory PR fluff (keep it factual and accurate)
  2. Demonstrate alignment with your strategy and vision (ensure messages are consistent)
  3. Use data to demonstrate what you’ve achieved (but only if it’s accurate)
  4. Explain how corporate actions add value to the organisation
  5. Make it readable and interesting with innovative visuals portraying outcomes

Beware the ‘portrayal gap

Communications of social and environmental issues and activities which embellish positive outcomes, underplay or gloss over negative outcomes, or which contain inaccurate data will create mistrust and can damage reputations.  It is important to address the big issues and check the presentation of information with those who know the data, to ensure it faithfully represents the facts.  If you don’t, the press and other sources will expose inconsistencies and misrepresentations as well as material omissions.  This results in a ‘portrayal gap’ – a mismatch between how you portray your organisation’s performance and how it is portrayed by external sources.  The reality may be somewhere in between, but the reputational damage is done.

Meaningful communication requires an understanding of the issues, their impact on stakeholders and the concerns that stakeholders have in relation to them.  This in turn requires an ongoing engagement where stakeholders have an opportunity to express views which are heard and responded to.

Unfortunately when claims like the examples provided from VW’s annual report are turned on their head in such a dramatic way, the credibility of corporate CSR statements more broadly are questioned.

Communication and engagement to aid transformation

Communication and engagement with stakeholders, including staff, is an important part of the process of transformation required by today’s businesses to work in a global environment with social and environmental mega forces impacting on business success – both now and in the future.  Effective communication and engagement is an essential part of both developing a strategy which is responsive to social and environmental risks and opportunities and delivering on that strategy.  It also influences the organisation’s culture.

Many of the activities companies engage in, such as employee volunteering for social good and equal opportunities initiatives, are an important part of that transformation, changing the way employees think and behave both at work and home.  They also change broader perceptions about the company.

Title image: Kerri Polizza via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)