At the Global Marketer Conference in Brussels earlier this year, a study by WFA (World Federation of Advertisers) and Edelman revealed that marketers strongly acknowledge the important of “brand purpose” yet continue to underestimate the extent to which consumers support “good causes.” Compounding the issue and the widening disconnect was the admitted “failure” by marketers to effectively communicate their efforts.

The Annual Industry Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Guidebook

This week, PRNews released its annual Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Guidebook which addresses many of these communication challenges and opportunities. As a communications professional working with multi-channel marketing companies and a contributor to the Guide, I offer a specific approach in closing the communication gap. A Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program must include more meaningful updates, as well as an annual CSR report to build and maintain brand credibility.

For communication professionals, multi-channel marketing represents an incredible opportunity to engage target audiences and grow the company’s customer base in new and creative ways. One of those ways is leveraging CSR programming. Companies that embrace CSR as a strategic business initiative understand the tremendous upside. According to Forrester Research, an astounding 82% of purchases are influenced by knowing the success of CSR initiatives for those companies that include CSR as part of their brand and corporate identity.

Yet when it comes to communicating those successes, most North American companies fail. In 2010, PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that only about 40% of Canadian and US companies produced a CSR report, compared to 81% of European companies. So, a majority of companies engaged in CSR activities are missing the business benefit of such programs.

Today’s various digital communication platforms allow companies to quickly update and engage stakeholders on program milestones and results, providing the transparency that is now demanded.

Regardless of the specific channel mix, communicators understand actual and digital word-of-mouth (including referrals, likes, reviews, shares, etc.) influences anywhere from 50% to 92% of all purchases, depending on what study is quoted, and adding in the CSR influence, the method of communication is now, more than ever, a strategic business decision.

Strategic Planning for Communicating CSR Results

Since stakeholders have different agendas and expectations, yet play significant roles in a brand’s success or failure, the business implications are enormous. Effective planning engages stakeholders, enhances corporate reputation, and banks “good will” for future corporate reputation use.

Understand the company’s overall vision and the specific business objective(s) for its CSR initiatives. The issues of importance to a company and its stakeholders tend to define the business case for a CSR program.

Recognize the program scope and establish the landscape. CSR programs are further shaped by company industry, operations, products, size, and physical locations. Who are the people behind the scenes, the communities impacted, the processes used to implement and evaluate the program? How will program scope shape communications? Will graphics communicate the complexity in a simple fashion?

Identify tools, platforms, and timing. Obtaining visuals based on the business objective(s) is one of the primary benefits of CSR planning. Know what you want to convey to different stakeholder audiences and the visuals that support those goals.

Digital CSR Communications: Different Platforms, Different Uses

While the nature of CSR programs addresses various stakeholder needs, the challenge is communicating the CSR story as a corporate and brand component using a variety of platforms targeting key stakeholder groups. Proactively categorizing communications tools by text, image, and video clearly provides a planning framework for digital communications, establishing a foundation for message development.

Engaging Loyalists and Making Friends

Technology has made communications almost synonymous with conversation. The challenge for business communicators is to convey messages indirectly with a casual tone. The message must be consistent. There are many ways to express the same information; no one knows that better—and does that more effectively—than PR and communication professionals. Maintaining stakeholder engagement and corporate credibility is mastering the art of business casual conversation.

Leveraging Conventional Media and Influencers for Effective CSR

Conventional public relations activities continue to play an important role in a company’s overall communication strategy, especially for CSR. Traditional media outlets provide a unique level of editorial credibility and integrity and are sourced by recognized influencers. All traditional media outlets have web and social media presence, so the stronger your CSR story, the more likely it will be shared and liked through those outlet syndicates and communities.

Authenticity is the Key to Meaningful CSR

The authenticity around a company’s CSR program determines the success of the communications, especially in this age of digital engagement. Know the business objective of your company’s CSR program. Communicate consistently across all platforms. Understand the platform’s audience and use the appropriate communication tool to have your message resonate. Engage, engage, engage.