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The How and Why of CSR Communications


I recently had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion on Winning Ideas from OC Corporate Social Responsibility Champions.

The panel (hosted by the IABC OC) was stacked with a fantastic group of speakers, including:

  • Erin Koch, Sempra Energy
  • Debra Hotaling, Ford Motor Company
  • Erin Mrozek, Chicken of the Sea
  • Vivian Panou, Earth Friendly Products

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is such a broad topic, and with such a great group of speakers, I had a hard time narrowing down my list of questions. After establishing some shared definitions for CSR, we got down to the real nuts and bolts – the how and why – of CSR communications.

Here are five of my favorite takeaways from our discussion:

1. All stakeholders are not created equal.

Whose opinions matter most? Employees, shareholders, regulators, consumers, or the community-at-large? Who should you be actively targeting with your CSR communications? The politically correct answer would be to say that everyone’s opinion matters, and to a certain extent that’s true. But perhaps a more honest answer would be “it depends.”

For a company like Earth Friendly Products, producers of the country’s top-selling all-natural laundry detergent, reaching consumers with their CSR messaging is a top-priority. For Sempra Energy, an energy services and holding company, employees and shareholders take precedence.

If you’re unsure which issues your stakeholders care about the most, ask them! Sempra, for example, asks their stakeholders for feedback in big bold letters right in the margin of their annual Corporate Responsibility Report.

When it comes to stakeholder engagement, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Effective CSR communicators do their homework to prioritize their audiences and work proactively to reach them with the most compelling stories, in the right place, at the right time.*

*Shameless plug: if you’re unsure what your most compelling CSR stories are, or how to reach your audience(s) with the right messages at the right time, thinkPARALLAX can help.

2. Casual conversation can spawn million-dollar ideas.

You never know where the next big idea will come from. Erin Mrozek described how an idea shared over burgers at In-N-Out turned into “100 Years of Good,” Chicken of the Sea’s pledge to donate $1 million to worthy causes as part of their 100th anniversary celebration.

3. Set big goals and tell everyone.

I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions. That’s because, like many people, I’m not big on following through with them. But research has shown that people are more likely to follow through on a promise or goal when we tell other people about our plans. It keeps us both motivated and accountable.

This is the analogy Erin Koch used when describing Sempra Energy’s approach to goal setting. He advocates aiming high, sharing your goals, celebrating your successes, and being honest in addressing the areas where you may fall short. If you don’t, you run the risk of having your CSR communications be written off as disingenuous, or worse, labeled as green-washing.

4. The value of a sustainable business model.

CSR discussions often focus on business impacts on People and the Planet. And why wouldn’t they? Corporate giving, volunteerism, waste management, limiting GHG emissions—these are sexy topics.

OK, maybe not sexy, but at least they’re interesting, and (if done right) they make for compelling stories.

But often overlooked in the discussion is the (debatably) less-sexy third “P” of the triple bottom line: Profit. There’s a saying in the nonprofit world: “No money no mission.” And it’s no different in the world of Corporate Social Responsibility. No profit, no purpose.
The literal definition of “corporate responsibility” focuses on the responsibility of a corporation to ensure that its products and services will be around for people to consume in perpetuity. Are you controlling costs? Is your supply chain diverse? Is your enterprise resilient? These are all big, important questions to ask in order to ensure your company can continue doing good things for the planet and people.

5. From life-cycle analysis to game-changing innovation

Pop-quiz: What’s more recyclable? A newspaper or a pick-up truck?

If the truck is a Ford F150, then the answer is the truck. And with the announcement that the all-new F150 will be made mostly from aluminum, Ford took a big step toward making their vehicles lighter, more fuel-efficient and easier to recycle at their end-of-life.
So how did Ford come to make this big, bold decision?

When they set out to address the environmental impacts of their vehicles, Ford leadership knew that their responsibility didn’t end at the car dealership. They had to account for the environmental impacts of their vehicles throughout their entire product life-cycle.

To ensure that their goals were appropriately challenging, they calculated the number of Ford vehicles projected to be on the road in 2050, and worked backward from there.

Debra Hotaling described Ford’s process for measuring their “CO2 glidepath” to set their targets, and used the resulting data to encourage their R & D teams to think creatively about how to make their vehicles more environmentally friendly.

The result is industry-leading innovation, not only with new aluminum vehicles, but an increased focus on electric vehicles and hybrids.

And you don’t have to be Ford Motor Company to find creative or innovative ways to limit the environmental impact of your business. At thinkPARALLAX, we have small incentives – like reimbursements for taking public transportation – that make it that much easier to reduce our footprint.

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