By Robert Johnson, Partner, RIESTER Public Affairs, Washington, D.C.
Every company, brand, or organization should engage in some level of corporate social responsibility. The big questions are how much, when, and on what issues or topics?
Before CSR was a thing, it was a donation to a neighborhood youth baseball league, the purchase of a table at a local charity event, or the contribution of an expensive raffle item.
In some circles, corporate support at this grassroots level still satisfies. But today, CSR is less about dinners and donations and more about actions and attitudes. It’s a place where political forces often intrude, demanding increased attention from those who believe every merchant should do more than sell products.
Surveys say people want their business community fully committed on serious issues, even if some of the results are so overwhelmingly in favor of corporate civic engagement that they’re almost unbelievable.
Recently, I visited with members of the West Michigan PRSA chapter, centered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we examined CSR through a political lens.
I shared with them a series of questions meant to help anyone struggling with the political tone of today’s CSR develop a path for addressing their specific challenge or opportunity. Here are the 11 questions, with explanations:
Who is your audience? Knowing this will allow you to accurately assess the impact taking a political position will have on your organization or your brand. Where do audience members stand on issues, how do they rank, and how intense are their feelings about them?
How close are you to your audience? The stronger the relationship the better. Taking a stand always costs some support. You need to know how much support you will lose if you play the political game.
Who is asking you to engage? Many groups can push your buttons, including customers, the media, third parties, the CEO, or the Board of Directors. It is critical to fully understand who is behind this push to get involved, and whether their opinion matters.
Do you or should you care? This is a simple question with a potentially complicated answer. It depends on who is asking and their ability to impact your brand. You must find a way to measure this.
How does this request align with plans for your brand? Every organization has a long-range strategic plan. Is it built to accommodate the impact of a political engagement? And does it fit those plans?
What is the staying power of the issue? This answer can help you evaluate your go/no go option. If the issue seems likely to last only a few days, maybe it’s better to hold your fire. But if it’s not going away, then staying silent hoping for such an outcome is wishful thinking, and very dangerous.
What would happen if you did nothing? Most companies prefer this option not just with CSR, but also when deciding how to navigate negative media calls. Most of the time, it’s not the best option, but it needs to be part of every calculation on the rare occasion it makes the most sense.
Which voices matter? This is an extension of knowing who’s asking you to get involved. Once the request is made, how does the voice rank in order of strategic importance? If the group that’s pinging you rates low on the list, maybe the urgency for a response is reduced.
What’s happening with the brand? Has the mere request hit your stock price or cut into market share? Is media coverage taking a wrong turn? How are you doing on social? Does this feel like a crisis? It should, because if you are measuring these outcomes, you have one on your hands.
How much time is available to ask/answer these questions? The goal is to prevent CSR from getting out of control, thus becoming a negative drag on the organization’s bottom-line. But the only way to do that is to plan ahead, get in front of issues, and avoid being surprised by outside forces. Like Q9, it’s not good if you have to ask this question.
What’s next? Avoid trouble. Build a CSR plan that contemplates the politics of your audience or audiences. Plan and implement an offense and a defense to support and compliment your brand or mission. Then update it as needed, when new issues begin to surface, whether or not they’ve landed on your doorstep.
Does all of this sound like preparing for a communications crisis? It is very similar, but politics have a way of ruining your day. When an organization is being targeted for its behavior, or when it becomes the subject of a drive to force it on the record, the line between managing a crisis and pursuing a CSR strategy becomes very thin.
For example, Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg recently decided to dump non-disclosure agreements as a tool to manage employee sexual harassment cases at his company. But he did so only after being ambushed by a rival candidate on a Nevada debate stage.
Is it the right thing to do? Yes. Did he do it without first enduring enormous outside pressure and ridicule in front of a national TV audience? No. What is it then? CSR or a crisis communications response?
Being pushed to do something gets you no goodwill at all. Only if you take action on your own, without anyone demanding a response, can you reap benefits.
That’s why the best approach is to plan ahead. Conduct political-style research on your company, your people, and your audiences when you’re not in trouble. Then take what you’ve learned and use it to inform proactive and reactive approaches.
Doing so should help you better position your organization on issues it, and its audiences, cares about, without appearing tone deaf, or, worse, looking as though you've been ordered into doing what’s right.