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 in recognizing its role and responsibilities as a legal entity. You could think of this commitment in two major buckets – and this taxonomy is influenced by my employer’s view of CSR but 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…