Why CSR is a PR Function By Paul A. Holmes In a recent column for Ethical Corporation magazine, Steve Hilton (former Observer columnist and author of Good Business: Your World Needs You) suggests that readers can tell a lot about a company's commitment to corporate social responsibility by figuring out who within the company is in charge of the social responsibility function."After reasonably exhaustive analysis of hundreds of companies' corporate responsibility performance and management, here's a pretty failsafe rule of thumb," he says. "Don't look at anything in the annual report: their statements on corporate responsibility will be practically interchangeable platitudes about stakeholders and sustainability whose worth could range from being an accurate reflection of a well-thought-through long-term strategy to being no more than a bit of fluff inserted at the last minute by a zeitgeist-savvy copywriter ."No: there's a simple test that will separate the sheep from the goats in no time at all. Ask who's responsible for corporate responsibility. If nobody knows, you can bet that nobody cares . If it's corporate communications, you can be reasonably confident that there will be a gap between external perceptions and internal performance. If it's public affairs or government relations oh dear, there's quite a long way to go."The key point in Hilton's article is that ideally social responsibility should be integrated into the very fabric of the corporation. I don't disagree. But complete integration does not preclude the need for someone within the organization to take responsibility for managing the function. After all, profitability should be integrated into the very fabric of the corporation (whether it is or not is the subject for another discussion) but that doesn't mean companies can safely dispense with the services of a CFO.And if corporate social responsibility is going to reside anywhere, I can think of no better place than the public relations department.Now Hilton doesn't refer to public relations by name, perhaps because the idea that CSR could be entrusted to PR people is too absurd even to mention or perhaps (more likely, based on my reading) because he is using the terms corporate communications and public affairs as synonyms for PR, or at least for aspects of PR.You can't blame him for that. We do it ourselves. But the discussion over who should run CSR activities makes it clear that public relations and corporate communications mean quite different things.To be absolutely clear, CSR is not a communications activity. If it is viewed as such, outside observers are quite justified in inferring that the company's commitment will be superficial at best.But it is a public relations activity, in the sense that it has a tremendous impact on the relationship between an organization and its public, and in the sense that the primary reason most companies engage in it (the inherent goodness of the corporation not withstanding) is the desire to improve its relationships with internal and external stakeholders.Of course, one reason corporate communications and public relations are now used synonymously is that PR has not always (or even often) been practiced as a relationship building discipline. But if you want an explanation of the true difference between public relations and spin, it is that public relations is about relationships and spin is about transactions: spin can be an effective tool for manipulating people into doing whatever it is you want them to do on a one-off basis, but it's counterproductive if you are trying to build mutually-beneficial relationships that can be leveraged over time.Those engaged in spin have tended to focus on PR as a communications disciplineand as a one-way communications discipline at that, a means of getting the company's story out rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue with its various publics.Meanwhile, those engaged in genuine public relations have been casting around for an alternative nomenclature, and have settled, rather unfortunately, on some variant of communications. That puts far too much emphasis on what is really only one possible end product of the public relations process. Worse, it suggests that organizational behaviourthe most important contributor to successful stakeholder relationshipsis outside the purview of the PR department.That's why there was such an outcry a couple of years ago, when Lord Peter Melchett, former head of Greenpeace U.K. and a staunch opponent of genetically-modified food products, joined global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which has counted among its clients Union Carbide, Exxon andmost significantly in this caseMonsanto.If you believe B-M is in the business of acting as a mouthpiece for its clientsthe business of communication then the horrified and outraged response of environmentalists to Melchett's "defection" is perfectly understandable.If, however, you believe that public relations is about helping organizations understand and meet the expectations of their stakeholders, then Greenpeace and other environmental activists should have been applauding. Melchett was clearly in a position to understand the views of those concerned about GM foods, to explain those views to Monsanto, and to suggest it change its approach. Not its communications approacha slick new advertising campaign with a catchy new tagline wouldn't helpbut its business approach. He might not recommend getting out of the GM food business altogether, but he would certainly advise more dialogue with critics of GM products, and perhaps a promise to hold off introducing new products until a broader scientific consensus had been reached.If you accept that definition of public relations, it's hard to see why anyone who cares about CSR would want to see it reside anywhere else in the organization. The legal department, as Hilton points out, is likely to approach CSR from a compliance perspective, focused on meeting statutory requirements that almost certainly will be less onerous than stakeholder expectations. The finance department is likely to take a short-term, quarter-by-quarter perspective, more concerned about the short-term cost of sustainability initiatives than the long-term reputational payoff.But public relations people are, theoretically at least, charged with understanding the aspirations of stakeholders, with listening to outsiders with the ability to impact the organization's reputation, and ultimately with aligning the mission of the organization more closely with the expectations of the society in which it operates. PR people, therefore, are likely to be more responsive to evolving stakeholder concerns, and more likely to see CSR as an investment in the long-term relationships the company needs to succeed in any democratic society.In an organization where public relations is respected and practiced as it should be, CSR should absolutely be the responsibility of the PR department.
L'opinione di Paul Holmes