Turf wars: public relations and corporate social responsibility
How do we understand the relationship between public relations and corporate social responsibility? PR expert Craig Pearce explains.
Is public relations is the same thing as corporate social responsibility? Or does PR exist only to help communicate CSR outcomes? Or, in fact, does PR offer a middle ground where it operates as a strategic partner to CSR?
These are three versions of the role public relations plays in the context of corporate social responsibility (CSR). You’ll get different versions of what the ‘correct’ version is depending on who you speak to, where their interests lie and the depth of their understanding on one or both disciplines.
Sadly, that depth of understanding often leaves a lot to be desired.
My view? Well, it is that CSR grew out of PR. Without public relations, CSR would be struggling for a theoretical and strategic starting foundation. CSR has partially developed as a stand-alone business practice because of the connotations associated with the term ‘public relations’.
These connotations are often pejorative and they certainly don’t involve organisational evolution and changing in accordance with stakeholder preferences.
What is CSR?
On a superficial (but potentially still useful) level, CSR entails programs which manifest themselves through an organisation investing into areas which its stakeholders find of benefit. For example, school curriculum resources, scholarships and sponsorship for community organisations.
On a more profound level, CSR is about an organisation operating in a manner more in line with stakeholder needs and wants. Examples of how this could manifest itself includes:
- Ensuring an acceptable number of local residents are employed in certain roles,
- sourcing materials based on criteria such as them being sustainable and/or having a minimal environmental footprint and/or being produced in an acceptably ethical manner,
- extracting resources from the earth in a manner which local residents and commercial interests agree will not impact beyond an acceptable level on their lifestyle, environment, business or social milieu,
- emitting only what is deemed to be an acceptable amount of greenhouse gases, and
- price rises only occurring according to certain benchmarks and guidelines.
It could be that communicating with stakeholders in a certain manner, for some, is also critically important and escalates this dimension up the needs and wants scales. This could manifest itself in an organisation being proactive and not obfuscatory in regard to key issues, as well as consulting with stakeholders on important issues before making decisions.
Most importantly of all on the CSR-communication axis, it means an organisation actually taking on board what the stakeholders have expressed and, at least partially, adapting business decisions based on them.
Applying any of these approaches will build trust between an organisation and its stakeholders, a core element of reputation enhancement.
What is PR?
The notion of an organisation changing the way it operates based on stakeholder interests and concerns is essentially what public relations, at its most fundamental, is about. This is the most desirable form of what is called two-way symmetrical communication, the most fundamental and rigorous of the theoretical constructs which underpins PR.
Public relations, a combination of science and creativity, uses market research to determine and inform the most effective approach to stakeholder communication.
Essential aspects of PR include:
- Recognising the symbiotic nature of organisation-stakeholder communication,
- effective provision of organisational information to stakeholders,
- interactive and learning-centred communication. This entails active listening to stakeholders, recognising their issues and increasing an organisation’s knowledge of stakeholders’ needs and wants due to this involvement, and
- counselling organisations on how to better adapt their operations to ensure positive stakeholder relationships and the best possible business decisions and reputational outcomes.
CSR and PR as strategic partners
One of the fundamental tenets of PR is that it includes mechanisms which enable organisations to determine and understand the issues, interests and opportunities of its stakeholders.
As a result of this, the strategic and sophisticated PR practitioner is an invaluable repository of information who can inform and advise the organisation on approaches to best enhance its reputation.
No matter the position one holds on what defines PR or CSR and which discipline should have the responsibility for ensuring as much organisational alignment with stakeholder interests as possible, there is no doubt the two areas can profitably work together.
The lazy way for this to manifest itself is by using PR as a simplistic mechanism to broadcast information to stakeholders on organisational CSR efforts, including the securing of media coverage. For PR to be used for this alone is a perilously non-strategic utilisation of a powerful business discipline.
Craig Pearce is an experienced corporate communication and change management communication practitioner. He blogs at Public relations and managing reputation.