I'm a big believer that through business and brands we have the ability to create positive social impact. It is the reason why I'm such an advocate for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in all forms. Especially when it comes to efforts that have been transformative, not just improvements to standard industry practice. CSR has evolved to become a significant ingredient and investment for business health and growth. It is why I've come to expect even more of CSR communication, and why business and society should as well. Too many CSR communication efforts today strive for the minimum, creating "just enough" of a reaction to get noticed by shareholders, employees, and the pubic. But what good are such investments if they fail to raise support for the social issues advocated? Or fail to connect CSR issues beyond niche interest?
If the ultimate goal of CSR is about creating positive business and social change, then the success criteria should strive beyond building awareness or informing the general public of the issues and efforts. Instead, the goal for CSR communication should be to connect with people on an emotional level so relevant, that it results in action and response. Only then, can you measure the true impact that CSR communication represents as both cause and catalyst for creating positive, social, and behavior change.
Information vs. Communication
CSR communication requires a sensitive balance of information and inspiration. The problem today is a lack of balance. There is a disproportionate amount of information, data, and details being used to grow interest. In addition, traditional CSR communication tends to focus on building awareness and broadcasting a corporation's efforts, progress, or future plans. In other words, CSR communication is used primarily to serve corporate interests, versus promote social progress. This one way broadcast of corporate-centric information is not unlike the way so many business/brands today are still using media to talk only about themselves, versus what matters most to people.
The duty to self and shareholders first, CSR and social issues second, stems in great part from the way CSR reports have become folded into the traditions of annual share-holder reporting. Corporate performance information is still expected and needed today. But the problem lies in how corporations communicate or create CSR communications beyond investor requirements. All to often, there is little to no effort made beyond CSR reporting. Information meant for investors becomes the only, or main form, of CSR communication shared with the public. Even when additional investment is made to communicate CSR efforts and issues externally, all too often the same logic and framework used to report CSR progress is used to guide how, and what, is communicated to the public.
Disconnect becomes most apparent in the way corporations respond to the lack of awareness, or social apathy towards issues such as sustainability, climate change, human rights or responsible business practices. When there is a lack of response or social interest, most corporations respond as if there is an information or education void. Believing that the reason people do not respond or show support is perhaps because they do not know enough to care. This explains in part why more information, greater detail, more reports and media spending, has evolved to become the standard response in building CSR interest and engagement.
Critical Mass Impact
Herein lies the issue. In order for CSR communication to make a difference, it has to be impactful in the quantity and quality of response. Individual behavior change is influenced not by rational information or logical processes, but by emotions and changes in social norms and the behaviors of others. Sociologist and psychologists have known for years, that people adopt new behaviors not because of a rational or deliberate decision to change what they do, and how they do it. Rather, it is born out of an emotional and social response to human nature, and the need to adapt to surroundings. New social norms are therefore more likely to be fueled by social movements that are powered by emotion and critical mass, than by data, details, and information.
So how can you tell if your CSR communication efforts are truly making a difference? Here are five questions to think through as a starting point:
- Are your communication materials offering a different level of insight into CSR issues? Or are they just presenting a similar perspective as that which is shared in your CSR reports to investors and employees?
- Can you say that your CSR efforts are uniquely different in intent and/or desired outcome from comparable programs within, and beyond, your industry?
- To what extent are your CSR efforts born out of compliance to corporate governance, industry best practice standards, or investor expectations?
- How have you defined your goals and expectations for impact and public response? How far does it go beyond public sentiment and interest?
- How far are you willing to go to make a stand and prove your commitment to the CSR issues you support?
CSR Leadership Redefined
The leadership and success of CSR can no longer be defined simply through intent, investment, and depth of information. We need more companies like Ben & Jerry's, Chipotle, or Starbucks, to inspire response and active support of CSR issues such as Anti-GMO, LGBT rights, or veterans' health. These corporations are exemplary not only because of their support for such issues. But for how they have taken-on the shared responsibility for initiating important conversations and stewarding progress. They have led their respective industries in ways that are felt far beyond words, investor reports, or accolades.
Despite the growing investments made today towards external CSR communication, there has been relatively little progress made in evolving the mindset and behaviors beyond the niche to the masses. It is in the best interest of corporations and shareholders to connect with more than those just those already "in-the-know" and engaged. By redefining expectations for CSR communication as being less about people "knowing more." And instead, focus on getting the masses so engaged they become inspired to "do more," business and society can both benefit from the positive changes they both seek.
Special thanks to Mark Smiciklas for use of his InfoOverload image.