Corporate Social Responsibility – Commitment and Perception

Corporations feel they are more committed to CSR but the general public do not think so. Why the perception gap?

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These are established and known facts:

  • CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is not just a buzzword but recognised as an important practice for the good of everyone.
  • Today’s more educated and CSR savvy consumers do their homework before supporting and buying the products and services of a company.
  • Companies, especially CEOs increasingly believe that being socially responsible is a good business strategy.

Yet a Nielson survey in 2014 ** found that even as two-thirds of CEOs surveyed feel that their companies are more committed to CSR, only 39% of the general public feel so.  There is also a significant discrepancy between how each group sees the motivation and the level of commitment behind current CSR efforts.

Why the perception gap?  

CSR has not only to be done right, but needs to be communicated.   Also, there is a time lag between action and perceptions.  Perceptions catch up with reality slowly.

Doing it Right

Consumers are quick to sniff out ‘greenwashing’ - that is the practice of carrying out some superficial socially-responsible activities to cover otherwise-unchanged corporate practices for the sake of publicity. Companies need to support their ‘claims’ with the corresponding action.

Communicating it well. 

Consumers need to be told and convinced about the CSR efforts.

Consumers respond better to a low-key communication than a hard sell e.g. advertisements. So when communicating:

  • Be truthful. There is nothing wrong with serving one’s own interests as well as those of the broader community. Overstating one’s virtues can discredit the brand.
  • Use a subtle informational approach and public relations tools, such as reporting CSR activities on a website or in an annual report sought out by already-interested consumers. Other avenues are third-party validation for example media coverage, and affiliation with a respected non-profit or civic organization and employee volunteerism.

Being patient with turning consumers’ perceptions around

Though most CEOs are already persuaded that there is a business case for being a good corporate citizen and have put into place strategies and programs for this, most consumers think otherwise.  The fact of the matter is that CSR efforts take time and requires making changes to the whole corporate culture and both internal and external stakeholders. When this happens it will result in changes to business practices and investment in the communities and the causes the company has chosen.  But while the CSR efforts are in progress, they are only visible to the internal stakeholders.  Only when the company demonstrates its action in the communities and causes will the CSR efforts become visible to the general public.  One way to bridge the gap is to start communicating as soon as it is started internally with stories about the progress – for example by talking about the people making the change (employees) and the communities and causes being supported

The sooner the right action is taken and the communication method is employed, the sooner the change in perceptions.

** http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/nielsenglobal/apac/docs/reports/2014/Nielsen-Global-Corporate-Social-Responsibility-Report-June-2014.pdf)