If we want to be successful in advancing corporate social responsibility (a.k.a. sustainable development), we must invent and apply new communications technology and media.
By John Paluszek
A talk delivered at the Eighth World Public Relations Forum: “Communication With Conscience,” Madrid, September 22, 2014
I will offer only one overriding message on the overall conference theme, “Transforming Communications”, and will link it to Corporate Social Responsibility. The message is this:
If we want to be successful in advancing corporate social responsibility, (aka sustainable development) we must invent and apply new communications technology and media.
Why? Because traditional media, by its nature, is not prepared to tell the CSR story.
Later in this article, I’ll offer a short video as a sample of how we can use new communications media to more effectively bring home the corporate social responsibility/sustainable development message.
But first, a few comments—reflecting several decades of involvement in the CSR space—comments on what may well be on the CSR “horizon.” This is a subjective selection from an undoubtedly long list. I appreciate that that horizon may look somewhat different in various parts of the world.
I think Jacque Barzun called this “The Theory of Aspect”: Where you stand determines the view.
And, of course, these six cameo observations are only supplemental to the fine comments being presented by my fellow panelists.
1. The advent of the “Benefit Corporation” (or “BCorp”)
Benefit Corporations are a new class of corporation that is required —by law—to create a material, positive impact on society and the environment and to meet higher standards of accountability and transparency. Their directors are required to consider the effect of decisions not only on shareholders, but also on other stakeholders such as workers, community and environment.
There are now over a thousand BCorps in 34 countries spanning 60 industries. In the U.S., 27 states have enacted BCorp enabling legislation—and fourteen additional states are said to be “working on it.”
2. The articulation and application of new CSR concepts such as “natural capital” and “shared value.”
Each of these extensions of original CSR/Sustainable Development thinking could consume—have consumed—many hours of deliberation. So just capsule definitions (perhaps discussion later). “Natural capital” seeks to align economic forces with natural resource conservation. A leader in this movement has written,
“… there are both serious risks to business as well as significant opportunities associated with biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. There is also a need for business to quantify and value its impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems in order to manage these risks and opportunities and enable a better future for all.”
Puma has been out front on this way of thinking about CSR.
The concept of “Shared Value” is said to have originated with Michael Porter of Harvard University. It centers on the principle of creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges.
Porter has written, “ A growing number of companies known for their hard-nosed approach to business – such as GE, Google, IBM, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Unilever and Wal-Mart – have already embarked on important efforts to create shared value by reconceiving the intersection between society and corporate performance.”
3. The existential tradeoff between the global need for energy and the environmental protection of the planet.
Again, many great commentaries are produced almost hourly on this crucial issue with its epic quality-of-life and geopolitical implications. I’ve selected just one brief excerpt as central to the discussion. This is from a leading journal of the legal profession, reporting on a recent survey of top business executives:
“The shifting focus on environmental concerns beyond regulatory compliance [meaning government edicts] and risk management to sustainability and corporate social responsibility will significantly influence corporate thinking about how best to manage environmental affairs and what environmental priorities should be… environmental sustainability need not be unprofitable …the U.S. Chamber of Commerce [has developed] an initiative detailing 100 projects in which the business sector has turned environmental challenges into business opportunities.”
4. The corporate recognition of the social and business benefits of investing in CSR in less developed countries.
One of many examples: IBM’s Corporate Service Corps – that is, employee volunteers applying the company’s core competencies to address community problems. The company has identified a “triple benefit”: Communities have their problems solved. IBM employees receive leadership training and development. IBM develops new markets and global leaders.
5. The accelerating growth of “social-impact investing” supported by integrated reporting.
These “impact investments” are made in companies and funds with the intention of generating a measurable, beneficial social and environmental impact—as well as a return on investment. The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment recently reported that about $3.74 trillion dollars— or 11%—of total U.S. assets under management were placed in sustainable investments in 2012.
The International Integrated Reporting Council is developing new standards for evaluating companies’ long-term sustainability by integrating ESG policies and performance with traditional financial performance.
And, finally . . .
6. The fast-growing application of business management standards of controls and measurement to CSR commitments.
Perhaps the best example is that more companies are establishing very specific CSR goals and are reporting regularly on how well—or, frankly, how poorly—progress is being made on those goals—and why. This kind of control and transparency was pioneered by Dow Chemical Company several years ago and is now well underway at companies such as Cargill and General Electric.
Now, as promised (or threatened) earlier, a transition to “Transforming Communications” as it applies to CSR.
This three minute video is an example of how public relations professionals can, and must, invent new means of repeatedly driving home the CSR message. It is a very brief selection of highlights from a recent series of Business In Society television programs that first focus on very important problems and issues in society—and then offer news and analysis on how business is addressing them.
These CSR messages have a primary, direct, influential audience: The CSR “proximate publics” – meaning employees and other company stakeholders, communities, NGOs and governments.
And, via supplementary tweets, blogs, Facebook and, occasional interest from traditional media, they also reach the general public.