Communicating Your Business’s Social Responsibility — Without Greenwashing

by Banks

Business Social Responsibility

Corporate social responsibility is a cornerstone of the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits. However, while it’s important to be a responsible business simply because it’s the right thing to do, organizations have realized that they can gain value from being a socially responsible company.

Consumers want to support businesses that are cognizant of their impact on the Earth and society. More than ever, consumers want to do business with companies that share their values — and will publicly shame those companies they see as irresponsible or harmful.

Of course, this requires that consumers know about your company’s social responsibility, and how you communicate it can make the difference between a committed and engaged following or a skeptical and dismissive public. Unfortunately, though, communication is where many companies fail when it comes to social responsibility.

Too many companies veer into “greenwashing” territory, spending huge sums to create the perception that they are environmentally friendly, when they really aren’t. However, there are other problems with CSR communication that can backfire on your company as well.

“Everything Is Awesome!” And Other Social Responsibility Lies

The new expectation for businesses to adhere to the triple bottom line is being reinforced in business schools across the country, where new executives are being trained to use the 3P’s (People, Planet, and Profit) to inform all decisions and evaluate the costs of doing business. However, because corporate responsibility is such an important driver of growth and consumer sentiment, too many companies jump the gun on the communication and fail to share their efforts and achievements effectively.

While there are a number of mistakes that companies make, including vague or unspecific communication, the biggest mistakes that most companies make include:

Focusing only on the positive. Every company makes mistakes, or has periods when things aren’t going well or progressing slower than they should. However, admitting when things aren’t exactly going to plan helps build public trust and support, so that when you do have something positive to communicate, people will listen.

Focusing on the wrong issues. If your company is polluting the environment with toxic chemicals, the fact that your cafeteria now serves non-GMO chicken is probably not going to impress people much. A communication strategy needs to address the issues that are important to your business, and that are important to your consumers.

Sure, the medicine that you developed has helped thousands of people, and that’s great — but was it tested on animals? You need to focus on the issues that are material to your company. Otherwise, you risk entering “everything is awesome” or greenwashing territory.

Not living the message. The fastest way to lose public support and build distrust of your communication is to speak one message and act another. It’s fantastic that your company supports a major charity like Children’s Miracle Network or St. Judes’s Children’s Hospital — but how are employees treated? Do you support working parents and encourage work life balance? If not, you are sending a mixed message, and that could backfire.

CSR Communication Planning 101

Often, corporate responsibility planning is scattershot, both in terms of execution and in communication. CSR efforts need to align with your business goals, and the communication needs to be meaningful and transparent. In other words, you don’t need to send out a press release when you add a new recycling bin to the break room.

CSR communication needs to be deliberate and strategic, and aligned with the overall corporate goals — after all, it’s closely tied to profits, and serves as a powerful marketing tool. That is why it’s important to consider CSR communication from an operational standpoint, and involve all key stakeholders in the planning process. Talk to employees, customers, and organizations that you work with, as well as the executive team, to determine the issues that are material to your business and to get ideas on the initiatives and activities that are most valuable and meaningful.

It’s also important to choose the right medium to share your message. Large-scale efforts and culture change activities deserve the traditional marketing treatment, with media outreach and glossy reports. However, social media is a vital part of any CSR campaign. After all, how better to show your company’s commitment to giving back than by posting a snapshot of a company food drive or community cleanup on Twitter or Instagram?

According to one survey, more than half of executives consider CSR to be a high priority, and about 70 percent expect its importance to increase. Even the government is getting in on the action, and mulling rule changes would require SEC filings to include reports about CSR. This just underscores the importance of the 3 P’s in business today — and the need to communicate them effectively.