Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


press coverage booms as CSR hits media radar

January 2004

Mainstream press coverage of corporate social responsibility issues has increased significantly around the world during the past three years – and most of it is still largely favourable.

International reputation consultancy Echo Research, which carried out the analysis of 5324 press articles on CSR topics published since January 2000, says the ‘lift-off’ for media interest was in 2002 and there has been no significant decline in interest to date.

Overall, the number of articles on CSR rose 52 per cent between 2000 and 2001 and 407 per cent between 2001 and 2002.

However, unfavourable reporting is on the rise, with the number of critical articles doubling in the first half of 2003, albeit from a low base.

Echo, which reviewed news stories, features, letters and editorial comment in national and international print media, claims there is now ‘greater polarization’ of media opinion on this field. It says there is a decline in the level of neutral coverage allied to a rise in both unfavourable and favourable coverage in 2003. The media now has ‘a tougher line on failures in governance and a sardonic attitude towards CSR’.

But despite the apparent growing cynicism, the statistics suggest that the press was evenly divided on whether companies practise social responsibility for public relations purposes. A total of 118 articles argued companies were ‘doing CSR for show’ and 127 said otherwise.

In general the press liked stories about big companies such as McDonald’s turning over a new leaf, or stories with an ‘ethnic’ link, such as Colgate Palmolive’s provision of dental care to Amerindians in Brazil. Among the most praised were Body Shop, BP, BT, Co-operative Bank, Shell and Westpac. Those least favourably covered included ExxonMobil – mainly for its stance on climate change, and Gap, Telstra and Wal-Mart – all criticized chiefly on working conditions.

Most of the articles – 127 out of 179 – on how companies publicize CSR programmes concluded they were not doing so effectively.

Business for Social Responsibility delegates were told at its annual conference in Los Angeles that corporate social responsibility practitioners need to improve their performance when dealing with the media.

Alison Maitland, who writes on management for the Financial Times, said journalists were more likely to give sympathetic coverage to those ‘who are honest about their failings as well as successes. You can’t expect to get free advertising, but a lot of the approaches I get from companies seem to me to be like that,’ she said. ‘Our readers aren’t going to read a purely glowing article about a company .’


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