The intersection of marketing, PR and CSR

I’ve been reading a variety of stories (links below) recently about Marketing, PR and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the one thing that became very apparent is that there’s a lot of disagreement and perhaps no little confusion about the intersection of Marketing/PR and CSR. In fact I found myself agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure with many of the opinions voiced in these stories.

This post isn’t an attempt to provide a complete view of these issues but I hope it outlines a number of things to consider when you’re thinking about CSR and how it fits with Marketing and PR.

CSR is a strategic business commitment

First off, let’s be really clear. CSR is not a marketing program or a campaign. CSR is a strategic commitment a company makes recognizing its role and responsibilities. You could think of this commitment in two major buckets – and this taxonomy is influenced by my employer’s view of CSR but is no less relevant because of that.

1) Working responsibly – a commitment by an organization to operate within the legal and social regulations as an integrated part of doing business. This encompasses adhering to legal requirements, being a great employer, enforcing strong corporate governance, and taking responsibility for working towards creating a sustainable enterprise.

2) Serving communities – a recognition that companies are made of up real people who live in local communities and that corporations can bring their resources to bear for positive social impact. This includes but is not limited to philanthropy and employee giving.

A CSR commitment requires resources, commitment and transparency. It must permeate the business and it must be both encouraged and enforced. It’s a long term commitment. Don’t make the mistake of dressing up a cause marketing campaign (see below) as “CSR”. It’s a sure fire way to damage your brand, your business and your goodwill.

PR is not CSR and vice versa

I am frankly alarmed when I see people increasingly equating PR and CSR as one. This is a fallacy. PR is about how a company reaches, communicates and informs its audiences from staff, to media, to customers, partners, stockholders and communities. That’s not to say that PR people can’t bring value to CSR. They can. The PR function has an inherent understanding of the perception challenges facing an organization, they can advise and support. When appropriate PR can help organizations communicate to their stakeholders about CSR. But the two aren’t the same. If CSR is done solely for the purpose of PR, it’s not CSR.

Cause marketing is not CSR

Cause marketing is a form of marketing where for profit and nonprofit organizations come together for mutual benefit. For example a company provides a donation to a nonprofit for each order made by a customer. The key thing to remember here is that it’s a type of marketing. It’s not CSR. It can be part of a CSR program, but not the whole.

Philanthropy is not CSR

Presenting a large cardboard check (or cheque) to a local nonprofit is not CSR. It’s philanthropy. As per my outline above, when it’s done effectively it’s part of CSR, but that doesn’t make it CSR. The most effective philanthropy is strategic. It ties back to the organization’s core business strategy. It is focused on creating positive, real, sustained change over time. It’s not a quick, one off check to the local animal refuge.

Organizations should promote their CSR commitment

Many organizations remain reticent about promoting their CSR efforts. Many worry about the potential negative backlash. I don’t agree. Increasingly customers and stakeholders will demand more information about how organizations are being responsible, not less. As long as CSR is a strategic, real, long-term commitment, then organizations shouldn’t be concerned about appropriate communication of that work. If you’re interested in a great introduction to this subject, I’d recommend Kellie McElhaney’s book Just Good Business.

Read on…

4 thoughts on “The intersection of marketing, PR and CSR

  1. Great post, some much needed sanity and clarity on this issue. Some points I’d add.

    Firstly, I’d argue that public relations and CSR are more closely aligned. Public relations is more than just communications. If it’s truly about reputation and ‘relations’ then how an organisation behaves is also part of public relations. And as you’ve pointed out CSR is fundamentally about an organisation behaving responsibly.

    Secondly, one of my frustrations about CSR is how too many organisations are starting to relate it solely to or too much to sustainability, which is merely one facet. Or it could even be argued that sustainability is something different as it could ultimately be about the very survival of the business.

    My final point would be that I think that practising good CSR actually requies an organisation to properly promote what it is doing. That way you not only make what you’re doing transparent to stakeholders, but you also set a good example for other organisations to follow.

  2. Hi Stuart,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I’d agree with you on the alignment between PR and CSR, once we use the broader definition of ‘Public Relations’ you’re suggesting rather than random press relations.

    I’d also agree on the trend towards just talking about ‘sustainability’ – which is like philanthropy a subset of CSR. It appears to me there’s a lot of circular discussions around terminology in this area from CSR to shared value, sustainability etc.

    Thanks Stuart!

  3. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read much of your post. You are right to say there are no easy answers. You’ve pointed out some of what CSR is not and toward some of what defines it. However there is, as you imply, no one definition or approach to CSR that fits every organisation because the strategies that CSR should reflect vary enormously. Stuart is also right to stress caution about the limits of sustainability. I see its charms, not least when it comes to sustainable profit. But I also recognize its ambiguity when it comes to predicting any future outcome (be it about profit or the environment) because the future is largely unpredictable. Hence, what’s required in this discussion is less grandstanding, spin and hype and more thought, modesty and realism: otherwise CSR will do more harm than good.

  4. Paul,

    I can’t agree more. It’s a broad, one size does not fit all approach. Unfortunately it’s further complicated by a lot of noice, hyperbole and vested interest.

    My advice remains to PR and marketing people. Overall focus on communicating in an appropriate fashion about your company’s strategic commitment to being socially responsible – cause marketing may not by strategic but communications should still be appropriate!


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