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Just What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Exercising Self-Interest

It’s gotten mighty hard to nail down just exactly what people mean these days when they speak of corporate social responsibility.

Does it mean extracting sea turtles out of fishing nets or not eating monoculture salmon? Does it mean not out-sourcing jobs to cheaper foreign lands even if it raises the standard of living in those places? What if the outsourced jobs go to foreign union members? Is it better to build a new LEED certified building or to make due with the old building that’s sturdy if not entirely energy efficient? Is it more socially responsible for a company to donate to an AIDS orphan cause in Africa than to a ballet company in Africa? What if the ballet company employs AIDS victims?

I’m not an ethicist and some of these questions are ethical questions. But for the rest of us how are we supposed to navigate the thicket of sometimes competing and oftentimes perplexing conundrums framed as issues of corporate social responsibility?

This was all so much easier when “the business of America [was still] business,” to paraphrase the famously-taciturn former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge (seen above on the right).

I am, however, a marketer. And in marketing one way to know where you stand with stakeholders who are important to you is to ask them. It won’t necessarily yield perfect moral clarity, but it can suggest pathways.

Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm and division of Omnicom, in conjunction with the National Consumers League has now conducted three studies on the subject of corporate social responsibility; in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

I read the executive summary for the 2007 study and if you can get past the laughably inaccurate renderings of the bar charts and the occasional editorializing in the summary... which has been no small hurdle for me... there may be something here for cause marketers.

What does “corporate social responsibility” mean? Fleishman-Hillard asked consumers just that as an open-ended, unprompted question. A truncated list of responses from the 2007 survey released in May included the following:

Commitment to communities—23 percent
Commitment to employees—17 percent
Responsibility to the environment—11 percent
Provide quality products—10 percent
More charitable donations—1 percent
Don’t know—9 percent

What contributions do consumers expect from companies? Again, the truncated list included:

Non-financial contributions—29 percent
No expectations—13 percent
Treating employees well—11 percent
Fixing problems created by company—11 percent
Doing a good job—11 percent
Environmentally-friendly practices—10 percent
Financial contributions—10 percent

What to make of these low numbers when it comes to corporate charitable donations? The authors of the study’s executive summary surmise that:

“…the consistent findings across both the 2006 and 2007 CSR surveys, when it comes to defining the meaning and expectations surrounding CSR, suggest that companies’ charitable and philanthropic giving is no longer enough to impress consumers. Perhaps it is now viewed as a standard expectation that consumers
have — a bare minimum requirement — to even be considered as a socially responsible company.”

They’re suggesting that there’s a kind of market price for corporate social responsibility and that consumers have already factored into that price corporate generosity to charity.

According to the Fleishman-Hillard study, what is likely to move the needle for consumers when it comes to corporate social responsibility? As it turns out, it’s self interest.

When asked what is most important to consumers with regard to corporate social responsibility the top vote getter with 29 percent was ‘treats/pays employee well.’ If England is a nation of shopkeepers then the U.S. is a nation of employees. And the survey's respondees are internalizing the question and answering it as employees.

And yet, unemployment is 4.5 percent right now in the United States... quite low... which has driven real wages up. So while the newspaper headlines here are filled with stories of jobs being exported to India and China, the fact is that the American worker is in pretty good shape overall; the glass is half-full. But the perception is that the American worker is endangered... that the glass is half-empty. The Fleishman-Hillard study bears that out.

Changing that perception is in no small way a public relations challenge.

Call Fleishman-Hillard. I'm sure they'd be glad to help.

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