Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


communicate your achievements but be prepared for some knocks

June 2003

Nothing excites like a new market, or failing that, a new angle on an old market. So it is with corporate social responsibility and public relations, where on both sides of the Atlantic, PR professional bodies have this year for the first time begun to take a keener interest in the field. For evidence one need look no further than the two CSR special interest groups recently set up in America and Europe by leading PR industry bodies, and the small avalanche of surveys from consultancies demonstrating that companies are not spending enough money communicating their CSR achievements.

To which one might respond, ‘Why should they?’. Each month brings another egregious example of a company that has shot itself in the foot while doing what it thought was the right thing. Cadbury Schweppes is the latest, offering a silk purse to cash-strapped schools, only to be left holding a sow’s ear. (As the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so the most well-meaning CSR initiative inflicts the worst reputational damage.) And strip away the rhetoric surrounding Nike’s defence of free speech before the US Supreme Court, and arguably one is left with the question: to what extent are social reports just public relations?

Indeed, a good case can be made for not communicating CSR policies at all. After all, the important thing is to be socially responsible, not to communicate it, and the one is perfectly possible without the other.

But there lies the problem. There is nothing wrong with PR, but in this area, in particular, it has to be based on solid evidence. Only then should companies even begin to consider blowing their own trumpet, and when they do, they have to know how to strike the right note – unlike Cadbury Schweppes.

Companies that do good work, but choose not to publicize it, are not putting their commitment in doubt. At most, they are failing to capitalize on an investment and missing an opportunity. All opportunities carry risks, especially in sensitive areas such as human rights and the environment. So if in doubt, keep mum. It makes for sound risk management.


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