Insight & Analysis

Eleven mistakes to avoid in CSR Communications

By Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn is an award-winning global CSR expert with extensive teaching, writing, lecturing and Advisory Service experience. He is supported by an extensive faculty and advisory team.

A blog first!  This piece on CSR communication mistakes is hot from the press!  It is going to the blog first and to other social media from here.

I look forward to comments and feedback and would welcome suggestions of other issues and things to blog about.

Thanks

Wayne

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Eleven mistakes to avoid: in CSR & Stakeholder Communications
A CSR Thoughtpiece from the CSR Training Institute
-by Wayne Dunn
CSR and stakeholder communications have a strong relationship to value.  Do it right and you can create and preserve value.  Do it badly and you can destroy value, or simply leave value on the table. 
Yet, CSR communications are seldom looked at strategically, and almost never from a value creation/preservation perspective.
Let’s take a look at eleven common mistakes that I’ve come across over the last couple decades of working in the space where business meets society.
These mistakes cost shareholder value and too often result in missed opportunities for companies and stakeholders.
1.     No Socialwash(Greenwash for CSR)
We’ve all seen it, glowing corporate communications that would make you think the company was up for a sainthood nomination.  Yet, when you get behind the glitter, there isn’t much there.
Don’t oversell what you are doing, or talk about results you ‘expect’ or haven’t achieved yet.
Trust me, ALL of your constituencies will appreciate candor and clarity. 
Your company or project isn’t expected to change the world through CSR.  Don’t use language that suggests you might, or worse yet, that you are changing it.
Language that communicates genuine effort and real results is your most effective message.
I’ve actually found that a sprinkling (or more) of humility is actually helpful.
And on this socialwash word.  I’ve struggled to come up with a word that is equivalent to greenwash.  If you have a better one, my email is below – please let me know!
2.     It was all us
Amazingly, you can read some CSR communications and you’d think that nobody else did anything to make the project successful.  That the company did it all.
Share the credit.  Liberally.  It is way better in every way (and probably way more honest too)
As much as possible in your communications acknowledge the work of all who are associated with the project or work.  Do this in writings, in presentations, in casual conversations; inside your company and outside.
Credit for CSR is NOT a zero sum game.  When you share the credit with others it doesn’t make you have less credit.  You end up with more.  And with more willing and engaged partners.
3.     Focused on company and not on issues and stakeholders
CSR is about the company’s interests, but not so much about the company.   It is about the space where business meets society and how value is created (or not) for shareholders and society.
Yet, we often see or hear CSR communications that sound like an advertisement for the company.
Yes, it is OK to focus on the company’s interests.  But, make the overall focus more on the issues, the stakeholders and the partners and the efforts to address/resolve problems.
If people want to know more about how wonderful your company is they will ask.  No need for you to volunteer it and take away from the important messages of your CSR communications.
4.     Doesn’t acknowledge concerns, shortcomings, alternative views
Don’t try to use fancy communications as a veneer to cover CSR challenges and shortcomings.
If your CSR project is like a pile of crap right now, try to fix it, not to spin a pretty picture.
Life is complex.  Issues are complex.  Accept that and don’t try to disguise it in your communications. 
Nobody expects you to be perfect or to have all the answers for everything. 
Often an open acknowledgement of concerns, shortcomings and alternative views can make your message more credible and help to facilitate dialogue and engagement.
5.     Too complex
If you can’t make your CSR communications easy to read and digest, then you better take a look at your projects and work.  I’m guessing they are too complicated and complex.
Remember, CSR is simple, but not easy.  Stay focused on the simple stuff.
If you get stuck when you are doing CSR communications ask these sorts of questions.
  • Who is benefiting from the CSR project?
  • Why is that important for them?
  • Why is it important for society?
  • Who is helping us with it and what are they doing?
  • What have we really achieved?
  • How have we achieved it?
  • Why is the company investing in it?
  • What are the challenges and issues?

 Somewhere in the answers to these questions is a simple, concise, humble and informative communication that can create or preserve value for your company and your stakeholders.
If you can’t escape the complexity, then you better take a look at your strategy and how you are doing CSR because I’m guessing that is over complicated too! 
Step back and try and look at it with fresh eyes, or, consider getting a set of experienced fresh eyes to come and do a quick review.  That may be the highest return CSR investment you ever make.
6.     Doesn’t openly acknowledge the company’s motivation
If you don’t own your interests it will be hard for the communication to seem sincere and transparent.
Your company doesn’t exist to save the world.  Don’t pretend that it does. Nobody will believe you anyway.
Your company exists to serve its shareholders.  That is actually the law.
In the process of serving your shareholders you can also serve society, often through CSR projects and activities.  That is what you want to communicate.
You don’t need to hide your interests or try to hide behind some altruistic motivation that nobody will believe.
Be open about what is in it for you and for your stakeholders. That will make the rest of the message much more credible.
7.     Too Defensive
Sometimes the best CSR projects are initiative in response to activists or as a response to larger issues.
Sometimes the company is on the wrong side of these issues, or is seen to be on the wrong side, or has just messed up really bad.
Don’t let your CSR communications end up being a defense of your stand or situation.  Deal with that directly.
Let your CSR communications be about the questions asked under #5, Too Complex.  Let them tell stories about what is happening where your business meets society.
If you are too defensive, and often even a little bit defensive is too defensive, the rest of your message will get lost.
8.     Too much promote, not enough share
Of course you want your CSR communications to support and promote your company and your social license, reputational capital and other issues.
But, often your effectiveness at that is much better if you simply share the CSR story and don’t try too hard to promote your company story.
If your company is doing good works through your CSR then you don’t need to shout it. 
Simply sharing the CSR story, complete with credit for all who deserve it, is the loudest and most effective way to carry your own message.
9.     Too much fact, not enough story
Sure, you want to have some data and details, but you also tell the people stories too.  Have a mixture of both balanced to suit what you are communicating and who you are communicating it too.
And, if want it to reach more people, circulate further and be seen as more credible, consider having a third-party do a case study and publish it, especially if they have a relevant publishing platform. 
You lose a bit of editorial control but will gain from the added credibility and circulation.
And, if you have a third-party that knows the CSR space you can likely get strategy and execution feedback as well.
10.  Bad timing
Sometimes the best communication is silence and simply let your results speak for themselves, even if they take time to be heard
This can happen if there is a lot of controversy around the company or issue.  In that situation communication can easily backfire.
It can serve as a catalyst for opposition and you end up with the CSR message getting lost in the controversy and noise.
When I was advising Placer Dome in South Africa they launched an incredibly ambitious and far-reaching CSR program in the midst of a huge controversy.  A controversy that had them in court with the National Union of Mineworkers and led to their being named as the worst employer in South Africa.
In the midst of this the company committed several million dollars to a massive and ambitious CSR program, one that was eventually credited with changing the social face of the mining industry in South Africa.
Despite the stakeholder pressures the company was under and the very public criticisms it was enduring, they resisted unnecessary public communication about the CSR program.
As tempting as it was to tell the world what was being planned, they maintained public silence.  Even after the project started achieving results we stayed silent.
We knew that if we opened any public discussion we had problems.  Those who were in a public battle with the company on other related fronts would bring the battle to the public face of the CSR project and it would be much harder to succeed.
We stayed quiet and let the results accumulate and pretty soon our partners started to communicate the results.  This actually led to an incredible public, and promotional, profile for the company and the project.
At the end of the day the project and the company gained a global profile and won many prestigious awards (see Stanford Case Study on it here).  Had we communicated it too early I am not sure it would have survived.
11.  Too boring
Make it interesting and fun. 
You are communicating about good works and helping to advance good interests.  Let it come alive.
Use pictures and videos and graphics.  The project is often about real people and situations.  Let that come through.  Tell the stories.
Let people feel the energy that your company and your stakeholders and partners bring to the project. 
Sure, sometimes you have corporate communication guidelines that seem to stifle the life out of anything.
If you have internal communication cops don’t be afraid to sneak something past them in the interest of making the communication less boring.  After all, do you think the first CSR projects had all the appropriate internal approvals!!
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As with most of my Thoughtpieces this one will have missed some important mistakes and you may even disagree with some of them.  
That’s all good.  None of us (and especially not me!) has all the answers. 
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