When to PR your CSR initiatives: Are you overdoing it?


Have you come across a piece of content shouting out about the good a company does, only to be left wondering how authentic it really was given all the publicity and push to promote it? Well, in the newsroom, we have.

While CSR activities are a great way for companies to advocate for a cause that is close to their brands’ and employees’ values and give back to society, ensuring that it is done for the right reason and not just as a publicity stunt is crucial – this should be an absolute no-brainer.

And while PR plays a crucial role in communicating and amplifying the messaging internally, it is important to remain authentic. During a recent panel session at Marketing’s PR Asia 2019 Conference in Singapore, moderated by Lisa Watson, chairman, Data-driven Marketing Association of Singapore, Seshasaye Kanthamraju, executive director – corporate communications and enterprise social responsibility, Southeast Asia and India, The Walt Disney Company said the company does not engage in any PR around the conservation work it does, or for its activities working with orphanages or hospitals. It will, however, only publicise it if it helps the non-governmental organisation be better known or to raise more funds.

“It’s never to build our reputation by saying we’ve worked with so many homes, for example. We are never going to put children out there as props for the work that we do,” he said.

Agreeing with him is Gwyneth Fries, senior manager, sustainability at logistics company Agility, who said if companies only use sustainability communications to talk about what they are doing well, or as an opportunity for a different kind of self promotion, that is “absolutely going to backfire”. For Agility, it aims to contribute to trade and growth in emerging markets and level the playing field for SMEs and as such, sustainability is one of the core issues it cares about.

“If you want to be authentic in how you communicate about sustainability, don’t avoid talking about the sensitive issues,” she said. For example, there are plenty of communications about green buildings but very few around modernising supply chain or ensuring that workers are treated fairly in her sector. Fries said these are issues that the supply chain sector faces across the region but if companies are not addressing them in a transparent and open manner, which then “it undermines the authenticity of the whole sustainability programme”.

Being the bearer of hard truths

While companies might have CSR initiatives in place to create a sense of purpose within the organisation, it can still be challenging, albeit crucial, for them to get buy in from investors also. According to Grace Chiang, deputy director, communications at SGInnovate, the challenge is not just changing the mindset within the organisation but also the investing community as a whole.

SGInnovate is a private organisation fully owned by the Singapore government that helps entrepreneurial scientists build deep tech start-ups. As such, it works closely with the investment community in Singapore to help them invest in the start-ups. “What we do as a communications people in an organisation is to talk about the hard truths. We want to talk about things that make people uncomfortable,” Chiang said.

For example, AI is great and can help improve productivity, but what many do not think about is are the ethical considerations of it. Chiang said that doing so allows individuals to think about decisions they wish to make and whether this is something they want to focus on as an organisation.

Meanwhile, when it comes to convincing internal stakeholders such as the board of directors or senior management that your CSR initiatives are paying off, Linda Lee, head of brand and communications, Southeast and North Asia and corporate communications lead, Asia Pacific at LinkedIn said “what gets measured, gets treasured”.

“When we go to the board, they want to see data, results, and numbers. Even before we approach the board, any CSR programmes we have been working on has those data to show that they are working,” she said. Lee added that it is important not to meet with the board alone but “go with your partners” which include the marketing, legal, and HR teams. This is because the responsibility of CSR lies in the hands of every department.

She also stressed the importance of educating the board that CSR activities are a long term initiative rather than just a pet topic or one-time engagement. As such, it is better to have about three to five CSR plans. “You might not see results immediately for some initiatives. If you are helping beneficiaries, those results will come later,” she explained.

Concurring with her point about using data to back up CSR initiatives is Kaye Lim, GM (head) of PR at Toyota Motor Asia Pacific, who said that PR teams will have to continue to be able to show the numbers because for those activities to be sustainable, they need to prove that they are contributing to the bottom line.

“With technology and data collection analysis and presentation, I think we can continue to do a good job to convince our management the importance of CSR,” she said. Lim advised companies to “get creative and own [their] own space” when it comes to CSR, since many companies are often engaging in similar activities. She added that it is also important to live out the company’s values in stakeholders, instead of only getting internal buy-in. “The business might change but values are constant, and you will find that it’s a worthwhile journey,” she added.

[Marketing magazine is proud to once again present the PR Awards – the definitive awards programme for PR practitioners on both the client and agency side, designed to recognise outstanding work in the PR and communications industry across Southeast Asia, South Asia and ANZ regions. Submit your entries now.]

Engaging employees to be more involved in CSR work

Culture also plays a big part in encouraging employees to be more involved in CSR work. LinkedIn’s Lee said that it is important for companies to think about the culture that it wants to build within employees, the tone it wants to set, and the type of values it wants to advocate. This should run across all levels, from employee to leadership.

“You have your most powerful audience – employees. They are your best brand ambassadors. Most powerful stories come from the employees themselves when they get involved in programmes that the company care for,” she said. Lee added that the culture of helping and making a difference at LinkedIn is very strong and it wants to attract similar types of people when it hires also.

“The type of talent you bring in will add to your culture as well. That would be the premise of how we think about engaging employees at large and at scale,” she explained.

Besides culture, Disney’s Kanthamraju said the agility to take decisions on ground as a useful way for Disney to successfully engage employees. He explained that employees across all markets are empowered to take up a social course they are interested in and are equipped with the resources to do so. “It is driven bottom up. Employees decide which social course to take up, how much time they want to spend in a year towards those courses, how much resource is available to be spent in a particular course and so on,” he said.

At the end of the day, Disney is driving CSR work within the organisation via two principles – purpose and relevance. With regards to relevance, Kanthamraju explained that it is about thinking whether the company is relevant for what is required today from a business, product, and environment standpoint.

“It’s not enough to say that it’s a great business or product, and it will have a life on its own. It’s also important to stop and say can this product be improved or does the service has the least amount of footprint for generations to come,” he said.

Meanwhile, SGInnovate’s Chiang said one of the major factors to ensure there is sustainable CSR or ensuring a purpose-driven organisation can happen would be strong leadership who is not afraid to make bold statements about certain issues,. She explained that leaders are the face of the company and they will bond different parts of the organisation towards the same goal.

“As a leader, you decide if you want to be moving the needle in terms of the changes you want to make. Or do you want to be ticking the boxes because the regulators are saying you only need to do certain things just to tick them?”