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Should we drop the ‘C’ in ‘CSR’?

Should we drop the ‘C’ in ‘CSR’?

Adam Garfunkel, marketing adviser to Heart of the City, discusses the term ‘corporate social responsibility’ and asks it is has had its day.

I was speaking at the Heart of the City annual leadership breakfast at Mansion House earlier this year when the question was asked from the floor: “Should we drop the C in CSR?”I could see from my vantage point on the stage that it seemed to strike a chord. Corporate social responsibility was a new-ish concept for most people in the room, who largely represented small businesses in the financial, professional and business services sectors. Perhaps the ‘corporate’ idea in CSR was offputting?

After the meeting I caught up with Robert Fry, managing director Europe and principal of architects Aukett Swanke, who had posed the question and asked him what lay behind it.

To me, corporate suggests two things. Firstly as a medium-sized professional company, we don’t see ourselves as a ‘corporate’. It’s just not us. And secondly, it smacks of PR and corporate communications.

Toby Craig, Head of Communications at the Bar Council agrees that the term corporate social responsibility has its issues. “We represent barristers and we see ourselves as a profession not a business. So social responsibility is fine but corporate social responsibility less so.”

Last year the Bar Council launched a report, which they deliberately titled ‘Bar in Society’ because they felt that captured the contribution of the profession better than CSR. But on the other hand, Toby acknowledges that it is easy to get too hung up on what things are called, rather than focusing on the substance of what they are about.

Looking beyond the label

So what does it all mean then? To Heart of the City, CSR is a “process through which companies choose to take responsibility for their actions and encourage positive impacts through their activities on the environment, consumers, employees, shareholders, communities and all other members of the public who may also be considered as stakeholders.”

Robert Fry says that his firm break it down into three core areas: their volunteering effort at local schools in the community; the environmental impact of their workplace; and what they do in the architecture projects and the services they provide their clients.

This is an important point to grasp: what you do as you go about your day-to-day business and how you do it needs to be a fundamental part of your CSR programme.

“We contribute by virtue of our profession,” argues Toby Craig of the Bar Council. “We are steeped in promoting access to justice and the rule of law which helps to create and sustain a fairly functioning society.”

So is the idea of CSR useful at all? For Toby Craig it is helpful because it creates a common language to explain a diverse range of activities in a coherent and compelling way. “We always had the story there and we just needed to begin talking about it.”

And with the threats to the profession from the curtailing of legal aid funding, you can see why it makes sense for the Bar Council to be promoting the profession’s credentials. Looking at the profession’s work through the lens of CSR has helped the Bar Council manage some of the risks facing its members.

Kate Walrond, marketing manager at recruitment consultancy Astbury Marsden sees the business value of CSR too. Kate was leading her company through the Heart of the City newcomers programme just as it was reviewing its business strategy. For Kate it’s all come together and her initial sense that CSR was something “you did on the side” has been replaced with the realisation that it is central to the way the company should go about its business. It is much more strategic than telling the media about a charity fundraising effort.

“It’s about our whole approach to our business,” says Kate. “It’s about being responsible and responsive to our clients’ needs, thinking about solving their problems rather than how we make money. That should be the outcome of doing business the right way, not the prize in itself.”

Kate adds: “Making money is important but it’s not enough for most people. A business needs to have something people can get emotional about and get involved in.”

So is it about doing good or talking about it?

Well the short answer is: both. As well as reducing your office’s environmental impact and helping local communities, it is also about your core service offering. In that sense it’s about a company meeting the needs of its stakeholders.

But it’s also about telling a story, connecting with people and building a culture. So marketers have a crucial role to play in all this, both in listening to stakeholders and in finding creative ways to tell the story.

And should we have the C in CSR? Well let’s go back to our roots. From the Latin corporate is originally the idea of being unified into a single body. Or in other words: operating with a single, consistent company culture. That sounds like another reason for companies to practice corporate social responsibility.

Heart of the City (www.theheartofthecity.com) is a network that exists to enable businesses to support each other in playing a positive role in society. It currently numbers over 700 members. Adam Garfunkel is the principal in the London office of Junxion Strategy (www.junxionstrategy.com), a marketing and communications consultancy that exists to catalyse social and environmental progress. He gives pro bono advice to Heart of the City.

This article was originally published in the April 2014 edition of Professional Marketing magazine. For further details go to www.pmforumglobal.com

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