If you’re in the business of reputation management and/or corporate social responsibility (CSR), you need to be familiar with the musings of Mallen Baker. Mallen is the founding director of a UK-based website on CSR, Business Respect. Last month, Mallen was named a contributing editor of Ethical Corporation, a global business intelligence organization. His bio paints the complete picture, but I really encourage you to follow his blog. I find his voice to be one of the most persuasive and balanced on CSR and reputation matters.
That is certainly the case below, as Mallen addresses some of the intersections between CSR and crisis management through these Three Tough Q’s:
Q1: In your experience, how often do CSR experts team up with crisis management professionals to assess and address threats, before they become crises?
This happens a lot less than it should. Part of the reason is that we are only gradually improving the understanding of what CSR should be about – that it can play this role of avoiding a crisis. For too many businesses it remains a low-level function that is about issues seen as peripheral to the business, rather than central to it.
It is changing. I see more companies appointing internal senior people to CSR or sustainability posts. These companies have understood that they need people with weight and seniority who understand the business extremely well. Companies that seek to bring outside CSR experts or environmental scientists into their posts are more prone to sidelining those people as specialists.
The most effective CSR teams aim to influence across the business. They are still in the minority, and many teams are too focused on what goes in the CSR report to make real headway in this regard.
Q2: In certain industries (e.g., oil exploration) it seems that the bar is set very high for companies to prove progress in environmental sustainability. Yet, the bar set very low for critic/activist groups to claim “greenwashing” is occurring. Does standardized CSR reporting provide the best solution for the public to figure out who to trust/believe?
CSR reporting is in its infancy, and the reports do not provide the best solution for a confused and skeptical public. The main problem is that these reports are effectively aimed at all audiences – shareholders, employees, customers, NGOs, the general public, local communities. Any professional
communicator will tell you this is an impossible task.
As a result, you get companies presenting data from some reasonably well thought-out indicators, but the figures alone don’t tell the whole story. They need context set before you can understand what the figures are telling you. Financial reports get interpreted by knowledgeable financial commentators and investors. We don’t have that for CSR reports, so the companies end up trying to give the context as well – to tell their own story.
And, of course, nobody trusts the companies to tell their own story.
But you are right that the bar is higher for companies than for NGOs. Although there is some very good and challenging NGO research, there is a considerable pile of dross as well – poorly researched, badly argued – and the frustration for everybody must be that lazy journalists give this research the same number of column inches as the good stuff. It doesn’t help.
Q3: In some instances, the line between CSR advocacy and activism gets blurred. Does this yield pros or cons for CSR?
There has been constant confusion, and generally it doesn’t help. CSR in many countries has been a business-led process, responding to changing expectations for sure. The perception that CSR is something that NGOs “do to” businesses is incredibly unhelpful for both sides. Ultimately the most sustainable benefit is achieved when companies are able to establish their own values, to frame their own business case, and then to constantly test themselves against the actions and innovations of their competitors.
When CSR becomes perceived as something outside – something that may be ignorant of the business, maybe even hostile to it – it becomes something to be negotiated with at best, rather than something that is going to help the company become more successful and enduring.
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