How does communicating c(s)r programs differ from socially responsible communication?

I have been struggling in these last weeks with a communication problem.
I just cannot seem to clearly explain to my professional peers as well as to my better students, the fundamental and conceptual difference between the practice of communicating corporate(social) responsibility and the need for organizations to ensure that all their communicative behaviours be (socially) responsible…

…The first reaction I receive is an eyewink indicating something like ‘here is this sophist again’, in Italy they say : cerchi sempre il pelo nell’uovo (you are always searching for the hair in the egg).
Let me elaborate:

– since many years now the public relations profession has developed a practice which specifically has to do with communicating social responsibility programs that organizations develop in order to improve, in the best of circumstances, their relationships with influential publics. In some (many) cases public relators are not only entrusted with the communication of this program, but also with its creation and operative implementation.
Many discussions are going on about the role of public relations in c(s)r arena, and we are well aware of them. In my view, the public relations function should not be in charge of developing a c(s)r program but only of its communication. But this is my view, and I fully respect others.
It is however very ironic to read that Michael Porter, while disregarding traditional c(s)r as ‘public relations’ , in fact conceptualizes what he defines as strategic c(s)r by using the same approach, paradigms and descriptions which have been adopted in the last twenty years by the better scholars of -guess who?…-public relations, substantially overlapping his elaboration of effective strategic c(s)r with what others have simply defined as effective public relations.

– as the complexities of organizations increase, a systemic and relational approach is mandatory. Every single function in an organization relates directly with its stakeholders and, however potent, no central communication department can hope to manage more than 10/20% of an organization’s communicative behaviours.

This implies that someone in the organization needs to ensure that all those behaviours be consistent and sustainable. It is a frequent case that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.
Specifically, that while the communication function might well need to implement sustainable and consistent policies because of the immediate visibility of its activities, the marketing or purchasing or human resource or production functions discover they communicate inconsistently and with questionable approaches, contents, tools and channels.
One typical example is that of some mobile companies who, on one hand, implement and communicate sophisticated and admirable sustainable development projects, while -on the other hand- their commercial advertising function around the corner prepares its annual plan by including from the beginning a sum to pay for fines they expect to receive from antitrust authorities or other sanctioning bodies for what they consider a given: i.e. deceptive messages to consumers or unfair competition.

As one can see, the issue of (socially) responsible communicative behaviours of an organization has nothing to do with its corporate (social) responsibility policies, except for the fact that when an organization, in any of its communicative behaviours, adopts irresponsible practices it damages its own reputation and therefore also weakens the communication of its c(s)r program.
Do you find this clear?
Can you suggest other more understandable arguments to better explain this fundamental distinction?
I say fundamental because it truly opens a vast open highway for us professional public relators to argue that we must be gifted (with appropriate skills and resources) to monitor (but by no means control…) all communicative behaviours of the organization, which -in turn- speaks for the need to add a fourth bottom line to our sustainability reporting practice: that of communicative behaviours.

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11 Replies to “How does communicating c(s)r programs differ from socially responsible communication?

  1. fully agree with you. Only please remember that organizations are not prisons or concentration camps.A good friend, head of human resources for a major international company, once said that ‘when two persons in an organization have the same opinion is too many’. This i sobviousoly a paradox but it indicates that diversity is a highly important valure in itself and should be encouraged. This of course does not imply promoting irresponsible communicative behaviours. On the other hand, when I say that a public relator cannot hope to control more than 10/15% of the communicatuive behaviours of an organization, I do not imply they should be either controlled nor managed. It would seem however reasonable that they should be closely monitored, and no one can/should do this better than the public relator.

  2. Dear Toni,

    Even considering my short experience as Public Relations professional i dare to leave you /and all the readers a comment about this issue.

    In fact i belive we are, sometimes, making a confusion where she doesn´t have to exist. In my view CSR,- Corporate Social Responsability – (and note that the word communication is not included in the “wording” of the concept, meaning that doesn´t have to do only with communication) is/should be understood as a behaviour of a company, a way of action, a philosophy, that is/should be reflected at every level of a company actuation in the market,like a characteristic of its “personality” that is reflected on every action that it takes, from the CEO, to the secretary, in their relations with the external stakeholders and among themselves, and in this sense, the company (understood as an all, that is formed by severall departments, people and interactions internally and exteranlly) should have responsible communication, reflecting its personality. A different thing is the advantage that Public Relations of these companies can take by communicating this characteristic of the company’s personality. Of course this should and is, enhanced by PR practioners, evoking good will among stakeholders, however in my point of a view, when CSR resumes it self to the promotion made by PR Pros without having as a basis the responsible behaviour (and has a consequence, the responsible communication of all the collaborators of a company on their day-to-day activities)the image that PR pros are trying to cretae or mantain will, eventually, fall a part, sooner or later, damaging the reputation of a company even more than if the CSR policy was never communicated, Why? 1 – CSR doesn´t exist.2- the company lies about it self.

  3. Without wishing to be ideological nor religious (you choose…) about this, I have (as you, surely) often seen the best of intentions plus a lot of financial resources go down the drain because while on the one hand the organization was claiming, as well as practicing, certain principles without realising that other parts were silently practicing others…until someone found out.
    Some pharma companies for example trough their ‘informers (doctor contacts) and bribes’ in many countries while claiming to be ‘whiter than white’ in their triple bottom line reports. Some oil companies for example while going beyond petroleum in many many ways except in looking after oilspills in far away areas of the world.
    Some of the big mncs claiming to practice responsible lobbying actvities in dc or bruxelles while they finance front groups working for exactly the contrary..etc…etc…
    Yes… of course all these organizations still exist, are still profitable, maybe even more so that before…but do you respect them? would you work with or for them? would you want your best student or daughter to work for them?
    My ideal organization is one who claims nothing, applies a policy to monitor at least the more obvious of communicative behaviours and, if as Eric correctly indicated in his remarks, there is also an enlightened CEO, develops a sustainable corporate governance and responsibility program.
    In this period of pervasive search for visibility instead (mostly hyped by us public relators…) it is almost always the other way around.

  4. Jean,

    To clarify, it’s not “‘JG’s two-way symetrical communication model,” it’s actually DW’s (a.k.a. Dean Williams). I would be the JG to which Dean felt the need to allude (why, I’m not sure).

    The reason I suggested Dean chime in was because for many years he was principal in a firm that focused on ethical and CSR counsel to companies, meaning this topic is very near-and-dear to him.

    (The story of how/why Dean established a firm with that focus is quite fascinating; however, it’s his tale to tell…or not.)

  5. Interesting post. I tend to agree that a CSR program won’t be very effective if it gets delegated by the executive group to a support team. Someone in the executive has to champion the program, and the rest of the execs have to agree that it will be a core part of how the organization does business. Anything less is window dressing.

  6. Toni,

    My view is that CSR is as aspirational as ‘JG’s two way symetrical communication model. Both deal with behaviours and both aspire to change through communication and alignment of priorities and practices the behaviours of an entire organisation.
    That I why I have always agreed with you the PR should not lead a CSR exercise. It is a choice thae management should make for the good of the oprganisation and for its long termm effectiveness in the market. The CSR approach must be holistic to truly succeed and it is based on the two-way symetrical model or at least it is fully compatible. I am not sure I would go as far as saying that all internal behaviours- such as the ceo’s relationship with his assistant must be captured by the CSR approach. I think this is pushing it into a ‘social re-engineering’ world that can distract from the real benefits to be obtained with stakeholders, clients, suppliers etc. I am not saying that the ceo should behave badly, just that we have to take it incrementally and not cross the line into a new code of politically correct human behaviours. If we preach a values-based approach to CSR, it will come naturally in most cases. Just like making suggestive remarks to staff of the opposite sex is now almost absent from most work environements- unless of course your name is Berlusconi !

  7. Toni, at the suggestion of one “JG”, I’ll try add a useful comment (emphasis on the word ‘try’).

    As you know, all too often, C(S)R is just PR and marketing. Aside from that, skepticism of organizations who claim to be responsible are all too often justified by the fact that, in order to meet performance targets, bottom-line workers from sales executives to technicians to customer service reps, are forced to compromise the lofty goals that CEOs love to trumpet.

    It never surprises me that workers’ behaviour is often inconsistent with the socially responsible image that the communications department works to establish.

    There really is no easy solution. Wanting it won’t make it so.

    Unless there is genuine top-down, walk-the-talk leadership, the effort to be socially responsible inevitably falls short.

  8. Thank you Bruce. I’ll look up that article.

    Brian, by communicative behaviour of an organization I mean, for example,
    -how the salesman relates with the customer or the distributor;
    -the purchasing agent with the supplier;
    -the product manager with the adversiting agency and the latter with the consumer;
    -the ceo with the assistant or with his executive board;
    -the contents of a leaflet or a special offer;
    -the sexism of an promotional campaign…
    all these behaviours contribute to develop an organization’s stakeholder relationship systems more than any planned activity managed by the public relations or communication department and to the license to operate which the stakeholder community releases to the organization. I don’t see much academia in these examples, and in no way do I advocate or believe that the pr department should be entrusted to control all these activities: it would be not only lunatic but also an inappropriate substraction of responsibilities of many other management functions.
    However, if we agree that all these contribute to shape an organization’s (may I use this term?) ‘reputation’ then it makes sense that someone be entrusted with a monitoring function….. or not?

  9. Toni, the phrase “communicative behaviours” is a bit of a problem, I suspect. I don’t really know what it means.

    I’m not an academic, but I have paid a lot of attention over the past twenty years to PR education, at the practical level, in Canada. Ovrall, I believe that academic studies can easily muddy the discussion and confuse the participants.

    But I’ll think for a while. And I’ll return.


  10. The current Harvard Business Review piece on social compacts (the process, planned or unplanned, that creates business-civil society interdependence) by C. K. Prahalad and Jeb Brugmann, makes you think we might better focus on SCR — social compact relations, which has a lot to do with communication, especially between companies and NGOs — than on CSR. Sustainable communication requires honest, open, two-way, provable diaogue among stakeholders in a common outcome. The developing social compacts present new opportunities for, and in fact engenders organic development of, socially responsible communication.

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