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Corporate Social Responsibility Communications: A Framework for PR Practitioners

by Autumn Conrad
July 22, 2013

From small non-profits to multi-national companies, increased stakeholder engagement and demands for more transparency have made Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) an increasingly valuable strategy for organizations, yet only 15 percent have a fully-developed CSR or sustainability plan, while 26 percent have no official plan at all. However this is changing as the shift from voluntary CSR programs to CSR standard program mandates are on the horizon.

To help our members get ahead of this trend, July’s PRSA-NCC professional development panel featured a group of CSR pioneers offering insights from the frontlines of this growing field.

Whether you are thinking about starting a CSR program for your organization, or want to know what you need to do to take your existing program to the next level, the panelists cautioned that successful CSR public relations requires an alignment with the organization’s business goals and involves everything from philanthropic donations and fundraisers, to human resources and investor relations. 

Panelist Cory Porter, who leads the Social Innovation program for Waggener Edstrom, advised that CSR is not just for corporations or the “community relations” team – it’s an integral part of the organization’s business practices. At its core, CSR is about two things: engaging people and telling your organization’s story. Done successfully, these two factors contribute to improved bottom-lines and increased loyalty from stakeholders.

Savvy organizations understand that seismic shifts in the public trust (think Occupy) and financial reporting requirements have made these two elements imperative in business. Sheila McLean, a senior vice president with the MSLGROUP’s CSR/Cause Practice PurPle, presented a new landscape for communicators thinking about CSR: 

  • The Rise of Shared Value: business practices and communications should be based in authenticity. People expect that the organizations they associate with to share the same values.
  • Power to the People: with unprecedented access to information, open source tools and software, and opportunities for collaboration, power no longer lies solely with organizations.
  • The End of Trust: from financial institutions, to universities and non-profits, the events of the past several years have resulted in eroded trust of organizations across all sectors.

To address these challenges, capture the hearts and minds of your key stakeholders and drive engagement, she offered a CSR communications checklist to keep in mind:

  • Do you have a clearly articulated purpose?
  • Is your commitment credible & authentic to attract heads?
  • Are you communicating in real-time?
  • Are you collaborating with internal and external stakeholders?
  • Are you using storytelling, symbols & celebrations to capture hearts?
  • Do you have a clear call to action that drives participation?
  • Have you set & communicated clear, demonstrable goals?

These questions are more important than ever before – especially in light of the rise of millenials – who will comprise 50 percent of the global workforce by 2025 and will look to work with and buy from organizations that communicate a powerful story.

How will you tell your story?

To learn more about the future of CSR communications, PRSA members are encouraged to check out the Charities@Work Summit, an annual conference sponsored by America’s Charities each April that offers educational forums on employee engagement and CSR.

PRSA-NCC would like to extend a very special thanks to our panelists Cory Porter, Director, Waggener Edstrom Social Innovation; Sheila McLean, Senior Vice President, MSLGROUP CSR/Cause Practice; Steve Delfin, President, CEO & Chief Strategy Officer America’s Charities; and Keith Diener, Visiting Assistant Professor of Business Law and Ethics at George Washington University and a Member at Art of Lawyering PLLC.

Autumn Conrad manages public relations for the national headquarters of the American Society of Interior Designers in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter at @autumnvida and