CSR: How to Spring the Trap


This is an article by John Parman.
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In 2007, I took a job as Executive Producer of Green Seed Radio, a one-hour AM radio show about lifestyles of health and sustainability. Green Seed certainly knew their market: it was based in Silicon Valley and was essentially an advertising vehicle for a construction equipment reseller called ‘The Green Building Exchange’. For public relations value, it was the perfect place to showcase new products and services.

In my first week, we got a call from a very excited PR lady in New York to tell us about a green vodka. Green as in good for the Earth. Great stuff. We had to have it featured on-air. I had experienced the teething problems of working with a veteran host who did not necessarily know the environmental market nor did she live the lifestyle. However, we could agree that vodka was worth talking about.

The interview was fairly straightforward. We learned about the grass-based ink on the label, the 100 percent post-consumer waste paper the ink printed on, the glue that comes from natural sources.

Finally, we got to the vodka.

“Oh, no, the vodka is not organic,” the vodka maker said. “Look I understand this whole sustainability kick, but if we all tried to eat organic we would be dead.”

The biggest problem with corporate social responsibility is that it rarely has much to do with reality. In theis particular vodka case, the PR was the full force of the outreach for this big company to potentially make a dent in the organic foods marketplace. There were not a lot of well known organic alcohol brands in 2007, so getting away with selling a vodka that was not organic by touting the friendliness of the packaging was easy. This vodka producer wasn’t the only one that worked this ploy.

The real question for PR people when they walk into an office should be: is there anyone or anything here who can be defined by their social responsibility?

As a practitioner who performs and teaches fundraising, I can honestly say there are not a lot of people who can be naturally defined as socially responsible. The reasons are complex but understandable: Some people have been in their jobs so long they “have seen it all”, which taints their vision. There are always those who have found the rungs of the business ladder harder to climb than they expected – often the case of those working at a large non-profit organization – and whose commitment to service has waned.

That’s the ‘me-me-me’ culture you often find among practitioners. There are lots of agents who have such a high image of themselves that they can’t consider what working for others might mean – even when they do it every day.

Repeat this: it’s not about me. Taking that slogan to heart is going to save you so much heartache in the world of CSR.

Before you begin a CSR venture, you have to look at what social responsibility could be for the companies and people you approach for help. Forget about marketing a new product or remaking an old one with a greener appeal. That’s not going to get a lot of attention any more. The fastest and best way to build points for social responsibility is to establish a relationship with a company who can volunteer employees for projects regularly.

Fostering volunteerism and being a volunteer is the first step on the staircase to profiting from CSR. First of all, volunteerism is often mutual and it puts ordinary workers – people who might only give to a bucket in a train station if they can’t be asked – to the test that only hard work provides. For those employees who consider themselves practitioners, it can be perfect to finding new ways to apply skills and start converting deeds into dollars.

The hooks are all there: enthusiasm, understanding, real happiness. I know of several companies in New York that hired a PR practitioner simply because of the links to non-profit organizations the agent provided.

However, it can bite you back if your company is just generous with funding and not teamwork.

Just take a look at Target, the “hip, modern American retailer” according to its press copy. It got a lot of young, university-educated people back to the malls in the last ten years with snappy jingles and lots of fashionable collaborations with designers. Then it was revealed they supported an organization that sought to keep gay marriage from being legal.

The boycott – starting during Christmas – was a big blow to a company that was only expressing the personal values of the CEO. That’s ‘me’ again. It’s not about me, you must remind your contractors when they want to win with social responsibility. If your CEO supports something like that, tell him to mail the check from his own bank account.

The biggest danger is creating a silo that cuts off CSR from the rest of the company. As a strong PR leader, you have to work to keep people in the loop and the doors swinging. Establishing regular activities that raise staff loyalty is crucial. It will keep the attention and help sales people to show and tell what CSR is doing for them and the company.

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