Role of Employees in CSR Communications

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Employees represent the most powerful brand communications channels. The most fruitful way to link philanthropic or employee volunteerism programs and the corporate brand is through a company’s employee base. What they say about their company and its offerings can often have more impact on company’s brand equity than any advertising campaign. If they understand them, endorse them and –most critically- feel a part of them, they will communicate this understanding with accuracy and passion. Keeping employees informed is, thus, key to successfully integrating philanthropic efforts with corporate brand building.

The first objective concerning employee CSR communication is to create publicity and a good reputation through word of mouth using CSR. Employees represent a powerful channel through which it is possible to communicate in positive terms about the company. The second objective of CSR communication with regard to employees is to increase employees’ satisfaction and commitment through CSR. So employees working in an ethical and socially responsible company are more committed to it. The third objective discussed in the literature with regard to employees is to increase the appeal of the company as a future employer through CSR. The fourth CSR communication objective is to reduce employee turnover through CSR. When employees consider their organization as socially responsible, they are less likely to leave. Furthermore, employees are also seen as a valuable source of information about how those outside the corporation are reacting to the CSR initiatives. That is why employees should be a primary target for CSR communications.

Effective CSR communication is grounded in employee support. The premise is that employees committed to CSR facilitate trustworthy CSR communications. Employee will verify messages that external shareholders hear from the corporation as well as communicate their own positive messages about the corporation’s CSR initiative. The better informed the employees are about CSR, the more effective they are at communicating about the organization’s CSR activities. This is also an opportunity for employees to feel a greater sense of involvement and identification with the CSR initiative, thus signifying the importance of corporates securing employee commitment for CSR concerns at every level.

Employees are considered as one of the most important stakeholders for CSR communications as they are not only an audience but also a key component when it comes to external communication with stakeholder audiences.  Therefore,the important task is to first adapt employees’ perceptions and then their attitudes and behaviors, so they can deliver the message with a higher level of congruence to external stakeholders (communities, consumers, financial groups, and government, etc). Internal consistent and congruency are vital to a successful external communication of corporate identity. Internal communications particularly assumes predominant importance in a situation where the organization deals with major changes such as adopting corporate sustainability model.

The channels of communication used for communicating with employees calls for a mix of one-way and two-way channels of communication including informal communication through conversational dialogue. There are various ways in which the engagement of the employees can be achieved. For instance,  utilization of emotional relationships and encouragement of collaboration through community and demonstration of underlying value as factors in CSR communication strategy will help companies attain their employees’ objectives. Similarly, internal communication with company employees can occur through many channels including the Company Value Statement, Regular All-Staff Meetings, New employee orientation, Suggestion Boxes, Posters and Banners, Newsletters, Intranet, Memos or Emails, Internal Web Portals, and Internal videos or Brochures.

In order to make sense within the organization, CSR needs to be implemented from an inside out perspective, allowing employees to be a part of co-creating an ethical organizational culture. This will enable employees to act as promotional assets and good corporate ambassadors for their organizations to external shareholders.

Today, the power of employee word-of-mouth has been greatly magnified given the popularity and scope of social media platforms such as blogs and social networks. It is, therefore, advantageous for the employees who work in CSR to be active on social and online media. This will enable them to locate relevant online discussions and contribute their own posts. Employee blogs, employee tweets, posts to discussion board are low-cost options that can, further, go a long way in establishing the credibility of a company’s CSR activities along with extending the reach of the CSR messages. Videos or images posted about a company’s CSR activity by employees can help create a content community. Employees can also be asked to help tell the company’s story and those who do so can be publicly recognized via intranet, or posters within the organization or meetings with the CEO. All this is just an extension of corporate transparency.

A company is in a position to exert greater control over the content of CSR communication by members of its value chain, i.e. employees, than by those who are not part of the value chain. Companies should, hence, encourage informal yet credible communication channels such as word of mouth. Companies should not underestimate the power and reach of employees as CSR communicators since employees typically have a wide reach among other stakeholder groups through their social ties and are often considered as credible information source. Thus, companies should “tune up” their internal CSR communications strategy and find ways to engage employees and convert them into companies’ CSR advocates. Employees should be informed consistently, concretely, and coherently about CSR initiatives, including program specifics, rationales and successes. Moreover, they should be included as participants in the planning, design and implementation of CSR activities. Keeping the employees informed and actively involved will strengthen their commitment. Active and meaningful CSR communications will also translate to higher levels of employee retention and engagement. Studies show that companies with a high level of engagement are, on average, more successful.

Thus, employees are indispensable for reinforcing a brand’s CSR message.

REFERENCES:

  1. Supriya Motwani, Communicating CSR is More Challenging than Paying CSR at http://www.irdindia.in/journal_ijrdmr/pdf/vol1_iss1/8.pdf
  2. Shuili Du, C.B. Bhattacharya, and Sankar Sen, What Board Members Should Know About Communicating CSR at https://www.conference-board.org/retrievefile.cfm?filename=TCB%20DN-V3N6-111.pdf&type=subsite
  3. Mohamed Bibri, Corporate Sustainability/CSR Communications & Value Creation: A Marketing Approach at http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:831498/FULLTEXT01.pdf
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Online Media is vital for effective CSR communications

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Digital disruption is today’s reality. Internet has exploded as a primary distribution point content creating new opportunities to engage people in topics they really care about. Companies in the field of CSR & Sustainability are being forced to make a 360-degree turn and revamp their communications, marketing, supply chain operations, and basically every part of the business. Social media has begun to play a key role in how companies shape their CSR policies and present themselves as good corporate citizens. As business leaders strive to build more sustainable and social responsible entities, formal social media strategies are becoming paramount. The future of CSR & Sustainability is, unarguably, digitally-driven and socially-savvy.

CSR is an interdisciplinary emergent field. In order to acquire a growing understanding of how to navigate the numerous way of handling CSR, communication and dialogue about it is a necessary step forward. What complicates the communication process, thought, is the variety of interests surrounding a CSR initiative. Not all stakeholders want the same information about the initiative. For example, some investors are interested in the financial effect of the CSR effort on the corporation (e.g. ROI), while local communities want to know how the actions directly affect their lives. The CSR communication needs to be tailored to each stakeholder yet maintain an overall consistency.  Without the stakeholders’ awareness of the company’s CSR activities, corporations are unable to draw any reputational benefit from it. Consumers’ awareness of a corporation’s CSR efforts is, particularly, a key pre-requisite for positive reactions to such activities. Therefore, the CSR communication stage should consist of a plan that outlines the stakeholders to be addressed, channels (media) to be used to reach them, and primary messages to be sent to each stakeholder group. Creative communication solutions are, furthermore, needed to communicate corporate responsibility messages in a way that is striking, relevant, and understandable.

Digitalizing CSR communication is a challenge and one needs to start with a communications strategy that extends over the full year. It is important that the strategy encompasses multiple channels and multiple-messages, even considering different formats of content such as social media, blogs, video, photos and newsletters. The penetration of digital and social channels into daily, working routine has reached a tipping point in terms of stakeholder’s access to corporate information and engagement over environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and the four main trends that have been identified are:

  1. An ever increasing adoption of social media networks as legitimate channels for CSR communication.
  2. The necessity of leadership to get active on the social web and develop interpersonal relationships as consumers increasingly engages with companies on social media around CSR topics.
  3. Targeted, relevant and useful information for effective CSR communication that need to ‘packaged’ in the right form by adopting more innovative approaches such as infographics and videos (visual story-telling is easier to absorb). Social media users are not interested in grand claims and general strategy overviews, but in concrete examples of how strategies are translated into everyday action and evidence of how companies are addressing major environmental and social impact through case studies, projects in action, answer to stakeholders’ questions, videos, news and updates on initiatives.
  4. Community feedback still has to be integrated in the company’s operations in addition to transparent stakeholder engagement.

Social media is one of the most valuable communication channels for CSR. The biggest benefit is that it allows brands to create distinctiveness and an opportunity to stand out with their CSR communications. Organizations can use social media to:

  1. Learn what CSR issues are important to stakeholders (find emerging issues)
  2. Determine if stakeholders are aware of CSR activities
  3. Assess stakeholders reactions to initiatives
  4. Increase awareness of CSR initiatives
  5. Provide an avenue for stakeholder engagement

The number one priority in social media is listening. Points 1 through 3 involve listening. Listening to stakeholders helps managers to understand the stakeholders and their CSR concerns. This CSR knowledge base provides a foundation for engaging stakeholders and eventually promoting awareness of CSR initiatives.

Communicating the company’s CSR messages in social media can be a basis for creating an echo. An echo occurs when people pick up the CSR messages and relay them to others- the online version of word-of-mouth communication. The CSR messages may or may not have the potential to become viral but the use of social media will help create the potential for echoes to emerge.  Fans on Facebook, followers on Twitter, and people reading the blogs are exposed to the message and can create echoes through retweets, reposts, and any other opportunity to share information with others. The online echoes cam also provide people an opportunity to add personal endorsements to the message. Trends will only emerge if people are ready to embrace the trends. This means the viral effort amplifies an existing need or concern rather than create a new one. All in all, social media are the key component to external word out of mouth for a company’s CSR initiatives.

The unique aspect of social-networking sites is that a person’s social network is exposed to others. The ability to see the social networks of others provides an opportunity to make additional connections that would have not occurred otherwise. Fan pages, particularly are public and allow organizations to add a variety of information and to engage directly in discussions with stakeholders. CSR initiatives and issues are a logical topic that could emerge on a fan page.

Using social media for CSR may or may not be a “business decision,” but it can help build positive reputation and possibility increase customer loyalty and sales. Major brands are finally starting to tap their customers to create an audience/support network for their CSR initiatives. A powerful mix of content, media, and entertainment can bring to CSR programs enormous success. It is critical to be transparent when it comes to a company’s CSR program, especially when harnessing social networking platforms. Being real, open and communicative is vital to reputation management. Online networking can help significantly improve a brand’s image externally, as well as boost company morale. For instance, Nike recently launched an online social media network called the We Portal, which serves as a platform for employees to discuss ways they can socially engage with one another, and how the company can be more sustainable.

The social media posts can be paired with efforts to target important CSR online resources. Public relations have since a long been an option for the low-cost dissemination of CSR information. The online environment provides some unique opportunities for uncontrolled CSR public relations. Common public relation tactics that can be used for CSR promotion are digital brochures, news releases; section of a corporate website devoted to CSR, special websites to discuss CSR, employee blogs, employee tweets, posts to discussion boards and targeted CSR information sent to CSR social media (bloggers and tweeters). Sending information to social media sources mimics a news release on the digital platform and acknowledges the growing power of social media. There are a number of CSR online portals and blogs that attract a great deal of attention. If a corporation can distribute through these outlets, the reach and credibility of the messages are greatly enhanced. The upside of these uncontrolled tactics is the third-party effect.Third –party endorsements serve to complement and to reinforce CSR messages from corporations. Legitimate third parties transfer their CSR credibility to an organization when communicating their support for that corporation. The company (1) saves on the cost, (1) does not appear to be an active promoter, and (3) gains CSR credibility from the CSR parties. Influential opinion leaders, e-fluentials and even average people may also contribute their own interpretation of the messages. Adding their own viewpoints may, further, increase perceptions of the authenticity of the messages. Either a few influentials can be targeted with the initial message or a lot of people can be targeted using mass efforts to reach a broad spectrum of target audience. The two step model involves (1) the mass media being used to deliver the message and (2) the people who receive that message transmitting it to other people. The system can continue multiply as people keep relaying the message to others. The argument for using social media in essence as evident here, is that they facilitate the ability of people to share messages. The journey through this two-step flow and viral-marketing process provides a rationale for crafting a CSR social media strategy.

Working with CSR Bloggers is a long-term investment that a company should consider making. Companies should cultivate relationships with these bloggers instead of merely pitching their CSR stories to them. This would involve understanding what type of information the blogger really wants, sharing relevant information, and responding to the questions of the bloggers.

Corporate websites are recognized as one of the most important media genre for CSR communication. Not only do they have global reach, they also allow the organizations to persuade, inform, educate, and interact with stakeholders via blogs and links to social media sites. They are low cost options, for providing detailed CSR information with corporations frequently providing a section including any CSR or sustainability report they produce. A tab “What we stand for” on corporate citizenship and volunteerism can be added on the websites adding small elements of all CSR works. CSR profiles and projects together with CSR strategies, reports, code of ethics, etc. can either be placed in hypertext format or as downloadable pdf files. For example, Starbucks posts its annual “Global Responsibility Reports” that are available for download as pdf files. Starbucks’ website also presents information about its CSR actions in great details and provides visuals to reinforce the text.  For ease of consumption by consumers, a more condensed version of its “Global Responsibility Report” is also available in the form of a “Global Responsibility Scorecard.”  Similarly, Vodafone is one of the many corporations that devote a specific section of its corporate website to CSR. Some corporations create separate websites focusing on CSR. For example, Intel has a CSR website, CSR@Intel which is primarily a blog for its employees. Most companies provide attractive photographs and links to additional information for those interested in the details of their CSR activities.

Apart from blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, MySpace, Pinterest, virtually every topic has an internet forum somewhere. Companies need to identify forums relevant to their operations and their CSR issues. These forums provide a place for the stakeholders to share and discuss both information and opinions. For instance, Starbucks is one of a number of corporations that have begun to operate their own internet forums as a means of engaging stakeholders with CSR. Furthermore, Companies can embrace games, apps, maps along with new and emerging social media platforms as well to reinvent the way their sustainability reports can be packaged and shared. Content communities emerge when people converge around some object of interest. YouTube (video) and Flickr (still images) are prominent content communities. A corporate may find content communities relevant to their CSR issues. Moreover, videos or images about a company’s CSR, posted by either or employees or external shareholders, might create a content community.

Story-telling is vital for corporate CSR efforts. From a recruiting and retention point of view, it’s a key motivator for younger audiences. Capturing all tweets, photos, and videos about CSR initiatives and encapsulating them in one Storify post can be used on the corporate blog. Stories are also an opportunity to showcase employees’ contributions to the CSR programs. Stories should be told through consumable infographics and in innovative ways that make it more digestible for customers, employees and stakeholders. Blogs, podcasts, Instagram story posts and video bursts are all tactics that one can integrate into pre-existing content marketing strategy.

Online media provide an opportunity to reach people while appearing low cost and low effort, and using third parties. Corporations should identify the social media channels to utilize and any specialized online CSR outlets to target. Escalating costs for the CSR promotional communication tactics increase the likelihood of a boomerang effect from the CSR messages. Excessive spending on messages that tout the corporations’ involvement in the social concern may create the impression that the corporation is more interested in generating publicity for itself than supporting the CSR concern. People know that online posts cost virtually nothing and do not seem to involve a great deal of effort. This makes it an ideal vehicle for CSR promotional communication.

Although a corporation may not have CSR-related news to communicate every day, CSR-related activities occur continuously throughout the year. Continuous promotional communication is more robust and appears as an ongoing conversation with stakeholders about CSR. Being a part of the conversation engenders greater trust in CSR messages than the occasional statement on the subject. Corporate websites should be updated frequently to report ongoing activities. Rather than framing CSR as a once-a-year topic, the continuous approach demonstrates it is a topic that corporation contemplates regularly. For this, social media are an excellent resource. Given the nature of social media, periodic CSR messages will not appear over-promote. Stakeholders expect regular blog entries, tweets, and posts to Facebook. Using a combination of social media and websites will not make it appear as though the corporation is devoting too much time and money on promoting its CSR initiatives.

As the adage goes, “there’s power in numbers” and social media provides companies- who actively engage- with an influential, built-in network of passionate consumers that become followers of a brand and are interested in what it is doing. Social media strategies not only amplify good actions of the companies but also generate doves of supporters. From raising awareness, to connecting with consumers in the way they want to engage and foster positive action, leveraging CSR in the social media world can strengthen consumer trust and loyalty, encourage followers to take and participate, and put a halo over the brand that dives in.

There is a definite and powerful correlation between the companies that rate highly for overall sustainability performance and those companies that do best for CSR and sustainability in the digital space. Sustainability practitioners were at first slow to realize social media’s potential to help communicate their efforts but over the last three years they have made for the lost time. In 2011, just 60 companies had dedicated social media channels to talk about sustainability. By 2011, the number had doubled. By 2012, 176 major companies around the world had allotted dedicated resources and social media channels to their sustainability dialogue.  And the number has only increased since then. Twitter and Facebook have been the favorite channels for sustainability communicators. Of more interest are the dedicated blogs or sustainability social media magazines being published, suggesting the continued importance of editorial storytelling in describing a company’s practice on sustainability and CSR. Social media and sustainability work well together because the foundations of both are the same: authenticity, transparency, community, innovation, and creativity.  Therefore, it is crucial that digital communications teams and CSR teams collaborate and work closely.

The growing importance of social media demands a more thorough analysis of its application to CSR communication. Integrating social media into sustainability is becoming inevitable because the need to go beyond mere reporting is growing exponentially. It is now time for digital adopting in CSR Reporting. By re-purposing material from the CSR report and tailoring it for other digital channels, companies can realize the full potential of their CSR communication by reaching out to a wider public or additional stakeholders with specialized interests. How companies understand and use their social media to communicate their sustainability activities will only grow in importance as it becomes part of the business communication mainstream. As a route to engagement, dialogue, and building reputation, the power of Social Media is huge.

REFERENCES:

  1. Excerpts from the book Timothy Coombs, Sherry J. Holladay, Managing Corporate Social Responsibility: A Communication Approach, First Edition.
  2. Melissa Jun Rowley, Why Social Media Is Vital to Corporate Social Responsibility at http://mashable.com/2009/11/06/social-responsibility/#MbHArelafaqi
  3. Katharine Panessidi, Using Digital Media for CSR, at http://blogs.imediaconnection.com/blog/2010/06/18/using-digital-media-for-corporate-social-responsibility-csr/
  4. Laura Hall, Tying Together Social Media and Corporate Social Responsibility at http://www.convinceandconvert.com/guest-posts/tying-together-social-media-and-corporate-social-responsibility/
  5. Iliyana Stareva, The Rise of Social Media for CSR and Sustainability at http://www.iliyanastareva.com/blog/rise-social-media-csr-sustainability
  6. Matthew Yeomans, Communicating sustainability: the rise of social media and storytelling at http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/communicating-sustainability-social-media-storytelling

 

 

Like it or not, the link between CSR & Marketing is undeniable

LogoLast week I completed my summer program on ‘Strategic Marketing’ at Imperial College Business School, London. One of the main reasons why I had opted for this course was infact, one of its modules on Business Sustainability, and my desire to explore the link between marketing and corporate social responsibility. Needless to say, I found this session, taught by Professor Colin Love, the most interesting, which was in essence a reassurance for me and my belief in the immense potential of having a 360 degree approach towards corporate sustainability in the future.

The primary stakeholder for a company is always the consumer. The rest of the stakeholders’ only care about the profit and the same is also not unfounded, considering profit is also an important component for a company to become and remain sustainable. Consequently, the objective has to be to build a brand awareness which has a value on the balance sheet, satisfying all stakeholders.

In 1994, John Elkington came up with the concept of Triple Bottom Line and advocated that the companies should prepare three different & separate bottom lines including profit account (classical financial reporting), people account (measure of social responsibility) and planet account (measure of environmental responsibility). A company producing a Triple Bottom Line is considered to have taken the account of the full cost involved in doing business. CSR has, further, been defined as a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model with the CSR policy functioning as a built-in, self-regulating mechanism whereby a business monitors and ensures its active compliance with the spirit of law, ethical standards, and international norms.

If a company is known to be green, ethical within a consumer group of 15-40, it’s a positive for the company in terms of brand value and can be termed as a ‘Green Benefit’ to it. As evidence suggests, an increase in sales, brand value and brand recognition will lead to an enhanced share value in the long term. [I was actually surprised at the number of people who confirmed that their purchase decisions were influenced by a company’s ethical behavior.]

Most often CSR gets attributed to marketing under PR, running the danger of being mistaken as just a PR exercise, window dressing or a greenwash. Here the marketing departments in coordination with the CSR teams have a major role to play. A CSR policy should be highlighted and communicated only when some work has already been done under it [For instance, recently the Mahindra Group met its CSR objective of constructing a targeted number of toilets in rural areas and communicated it on digital platforms]. Green-washing will only spoil the environment in which the company operates in, in terms of public relations and media. Thus, it becomes the responsibility of a marketing professional to prevent such damage to the brand by ensuring the communication of only the relevant information.

As evident by the CSR practices and trends, social responsibility has both a social component and a business component. A company practicing Triple Bottom Line also has to make money. There is growing evidence to suggest that ethical practices build sustainable businesses which are corporately responsible and the benefactors include the shareholders, staff, suppliers, the economy, the planet and the society. Corporate Responsibility has been recognized as the necessary cost of doing business which gives a company a distinctive position in the market. The business benefits to a company having a defined corporate-responsibility policy have been found to include- better brand reputation, better decisions for the business in the long term, attractiveness to potential & existing employees, meeting of ethical standards required by the customers, better relations with the regulators and lawmakers and higher revenue as compared to that in the absence of it.  The positive commercial reputation garnered, thus, also contributes to the HR reputation of a company and their ability to attract and retain employees. Citizenship responsibilities, a requirement for global companies, further, ensure positive social reputation through environmental stewardship, education, community projects and philanthropic ventures. While these may be difficult to define or measure, they are likely to feed commercial reputation of the company.

It’s no longer surprising that the trend is gradually shifting from corporate social responsibility to business sustainability. Corporations are now in a position to effectively control resources, technology and have global reach at the same time, ultimately controlling the motivation to achieve sustainability. Sustainable Development is, therefore, increasingly indicating a market in which the strong and successful accept their responsibilities, showing vision and leadership.

For managing sustainable business & corporate responsibility, communication of the business case is very important, bringing the topic of CSR communications to the forefront. Along with it, inter-firm initiatives, an understanding of benefits, quantification of tangible evidence, adoption of systems to include initiatives, disclosure, stakeholder involvement and an ever evolving business case/strategy are the key requirements of any successful sustainable business practice. The drivers of CSR, key issues, stakeholders, functions required to support the program, company systems/culture/organisation, HR, matrix management, and budgets and resources also have to be managed for an effective implementation of any CSR program. A way to do it, of course, is by setting up a CSR function as a department, educating and empowering the management to collectively manage the process (esp. the marketing & business communications dept.), and fostering ownership (for instance, by having bonus schemes that reward CSR initiatives pursued by employees). The secret to managing sustainability involves understanding the business case, what to do and how to do it. This has to be supplemented with the preparation of a culture of change, environmental management systems, measures and communication plans. What starts with small steps, mostly internal to the company will lead to huge leaps externally consisting of cleaner production/design, service synergies and industry symbiosis.

Corporate Responsibility is increasingly being given a very high priority nowadays. Some of the global priorities for the next 5 years are posed to include the environment, safer products, retirement benefits, health-care benefits, affordable products, human-rights standards, workplace conditions, job losses from outsourcing, privacy and data security, ethically produced products, investment in developing countries, ethical advertising & marketing, political influence of companies, executive pay and opposition to freer trade among others. Models of corporate sustainability will involve those across logistics, supply chain, operations, technologies, services, HRM, marketing and sales. For instance, to be able to say that everything a company purchases is “sustainably sourced” is a marketing masterstroke. Marketing and sustainability, hence, have to be made the two sides of the same coin with the objective – ‘You can do well by doing good.’

It is time to reinvent the role of business in society and in pursuance of it, reinvent the role of marketing.

Marketing CSR will, thus, be ‘marketing to real people by real people.’