Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has taken hold in companies around the country and the globe. Concern for the environment, for human rights and for finding a balance between a company’s CSR values and the constituents it serves is an important function for most organizations — and their corporate communication staff members.
In fact, as Financier Worldwide reported, a 2015 study by the Kenexa High Performance Institute in London showed that organizations with serious CSR commitments performed better. They demonstrated a 19 times higher return on assets along with better employee engagement and customer service.
Walking the talk
Today, even companies that don’t directly impact the environment or human rights understand the importance of CSR for their employees and their markets. But companies that do have a direct impact are particularly subject to scrutiny.
A strong values culture is always important to employees, but it’s even more essential when CSR is inherent in what a company does. That’s the case with ERA Environmental Management Solutions, a firm that provides environmental software solutions to major manufacturers in the automobile, oil and gas, shipping and logistics, and chemicals industries. Owner and senior environmental toxicologist, Gary Vegh, says, “We recognized early on that our workforce needed to see the kind of sustainable measures that we discuss with clients in our own offices.”
The executive team was able to get employees on board without prompting by highlighting sustainability practices themselves, Vegh says. Some practices were simple, such as making sure that each desk station has its own mini recycling bin. “Other approaches, such as installing electric vehicle charging points in prominent parking spots and turning off lights in unused meeting rooms and toilets are things people notice,” Vegh notes. This kind of communication through demonstration can send a powerful and inspiring message to employees.
From the top down
As Vegh’s example illustrates, strong values start at the top of the organization.
Shel Horowitz is a profitability consultant for green and social entrepreneurship businesses and the author of 10 books, most recently “Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World.” Horowitz has had the opportunity to view a wide range of corporate sustainability efforts. What he’s noticed most is that “many successful CSR initiatives start with full buy-in from the C-suite, or at least the CEO.” Often, Horowitz notes, the CEO is the driver of these efforts. Examples of this include Lee Scott at Walmart, Ray Anderson at Interface and Yvon Chouinard at Patagonia. Smart CEOs “Understand the business case for CSR — and that CSR works best in a culture of openness, where employees feel valued and listened to, and see their (or their coworkers’) best thinking implemented,” Horowitz explains.
While clear and continuous support from upper-management is certainly important, corporate communication staff have a major role to play in ensuring that CSR values are communicated regularly and effectively to all segments of the workforce in meaningful ways.
Christen Graham is president of Giving Strong, Inc., a social impact consulting firm. She points to three core communication elements that go into ensuring that CSR values become an integral part of the corporate culture:
- What is communicated must be sincere. Employees know when communication they receive is authentic and when it’s simply “corporate speak.” Graham says, “Internal communications should support and illuminate the culture of corporate social responsibility that’s happening all around — from responsible materials sourcing to recycling to community volunteering.”
- Messages must be communicated again and again and again. Effective CSR communication is not an event, but a process. Staff are continually bombarded by a multitude of messages across myriad channels. They may not fully attend to all, or any, of these messages, depending on what’s happening in their days. Graham also reminds, “Communicating is more than words — use images, video and conversations to reinforce the culture.”
- Employees across the enterprise must be engaged in dialogue. CSR messaging shouldn’t simply be an “authoritarian monologue from the C-suite,” Graham notes. Invite input and participation from employees so they become part of the conversations.
Corporate communications leaders have an important role to play in ensuring that messaging is consistent from the top to the front lines of the organization. This includes arming executives, managers and other appropriate staff with the right messages and FAQ responses to share.
While interpersonal interactions and dialogue are important for keeping the CSR message alive, today’s communicators benefit from the ability to use digital channels to allow employees to access and interact with information on their own terms.
Vanya Babanin Ph.D. is a reputation and brand management consultant and regional lead of the European Association of Communication Directors, Regional Group Bulgaria. In her experience working with automotive brands like Mercedes-Benz, Jeep and Mitsubishi, Babanin says that she found “the best way to communicate corporate values internally is in the mixture between informal chats and the formal intranet portal.” Today, she notes, corporate communicators can take advantage of digital platforms, including internal IM, to boost communication and sharing. The basics of effective communication remain the same, but the channels have broadened. “We need a healthy mixture of digital and off-line,” she says.
The bottom line: CSR values matter. To show that they matter, effective communication across traditional and digital channels is key.