CSR's Misguided PR Strategy - or Just Say No! to CSR

Have you ever watched Archer? If not, why not - not that that's the point of the post - but you should be watching Archer because it's great social commentary. OK, it's just funny. This past year, Isis (the spy agency in Archer) decided to go green as those "liberals in Congress are giving away money" and it's about leaving money on the table and get freebie tax benefits by going green. So Isis goes green - for a little bit - and installs low-flow toilets and those new bulbs.

You ever get the feeling that most corporations go into the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program with the same thinking? That if this makes us look good to the community, well it's just one of those fun terms that public relations and marketing people bring out when they want to put a happy face on a client or organization. Especially when it's less than a happy, go-lucky place.

CSR is also one of those things that most people roll their eyes at because it's not usually done for the good of the community, but it's done to make it seem like the company cares. We have all worked with companies that claim they want to go green, so let's tie ourselves to Earth Day!! and then, well, donate some small amount or something.

Of course, that's not for all companies or corporations. Some corporations do care about their communities, care more than just about the touchy-feely ... but it does raise the question if CSR is even a real thing, or are we moving into a social good mind-set (corporate philanthropy with social media twist). Of course, add the adjective "social" to anything and you have a killer program...

Looking at it from a PR angle, well, of course there's a great public relations (and, well, social media) aspect to all CSR programs (don't deny it). Should companies be undertaking social good or CSR programs just for the PR sake, or should there be more? And looking at recent articles, going green and all that doesn't mean an increase in sales ... which is why most companies are doing it.

It's questions like that that lead me to reach out the Dr. R. Edward Freeman from Darden School of Business at University of Virginia. Plus, got to geek out with my philosophy side again (business ethics, Kant theories, utilitarianism and all that fun stuff - for me).

Dr. Freeman is the thinker behind stakeholder management - and the man who wrote the book on it. In a one-liner, corporations act in such a way to benefit everyone with a stake in the corporation: the community, workers, shareholders, customers. With stakeholder management, CSR becomes unnecessary.

You note that CSR is different than managing for stakeholders - and that if managing for stakeholders is done well, we can just drop the CSR movement. What exactly do you mean by that?

If we are fulfilling all of our responsibilities to customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and financiers, and creating value for them, what does it mean to ask "are we socially responsible". Oftentimes CSR can serve as an excuse not to fulfill those baseline stakeholder responsibilities, or it serves to apologize for, rather than prevent harmful consequences. Take care of stakeholders and CSR takes care of itself.

While there is a major difference between the two, why does CSR have such a high public relations value? Are companies engaging in CSR for the right reasons, or is it just PR games?

There are many reasons that companies engage in CSR. Some are good reasons and some not. I resist the temptation to comment on all companies, or to reduce a complex issue to a simple motivation.

While managing for stakeholders DOES include employees - and making it a better corporation for them - how does that extend to employees being ambassadors for the brand? What is their duty in managing (or in CSR)?

Surely you want to run your company so that your employees believe in what they are doing, and are willing to say that they believe in it. If that is being an ambassador for the brand, then its a good idea. More generally we need to think about, as my colleague Andrew Wicks has argued, what makes a "responsible stakeholder". After all if companies have responsibilities to stakeholders, don't stakeholders have a responsibility to companies?

Especially this month - Earth Day month - companies all tout their green initiatives, and many feel forced. What would stakeholder theory change that companies wouldn't have to PR and tout their efforts for one month (be it Earth Day or breast cancer month in February)?

Again…this is a matter of taking one's responsibilties seriously…as many companies do. It is the old story about business that only profits and shareholders count, which give rise to questions like this. Businesses create value for their stakeholders. Many companies take that seriously. Its not a matter of "just PR" etc. It's quite real. It's the business model.

Is CSR a real viable business solution that dovetails with stakeholder theory? There are companies that are doing it to just check off a box on a list, but does stakeholder theory make it more viable, make it more aligned to business goals?

Stakeholder theory is about the business. It is also about ethics and responsibility. WE have to learn not to separate these ideas, as the old story does.

With stakeholder theory, it seems like the cost of any program is okay if it brings value to the community or employees, while most CSR has an underlying increase sales premise. How can stakeholder theory improve the bottom line?

Absolutely not…Business is about creating value for financiers, customers, employees, suppliers, and communities. Their interests need to go in the same direction. Stakeholder theory is about finding ways to put these interests together, not break them apart as your question assumes.


Now this doesn't mean that I'm not pro-companies doing good - just wonder if it should be a PR strategy. And as noted above, it's not just about PR but about all aspects of the business. It's why there are businesses and corporations out there that I think understand this - not ones that most people think about, but those that reach out to communities and do it under-the-radar and not looking just for publicity.

While at the Mom 2.0 Summit, one of the sponsors was Let's Play from Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. Here's a great idea - work with a playground organization (Kaboom) that works to place playgrounds in cities for children to have a place to play. Think about that- a large corporation that rallies communities to build playgrounds in their communities. That's more of a social good and investing in stakeholders than a stodgy CSR program. It speaks to actually caring about the communities that are your customers. And while at Mom 2.0, one of the breaks was sponsored by Let's Play, where attendees could go help build a (badly needed) playground in New Orleans.

Or look at the recent social good campaign by Seattle's Best - the Brew-lanthropy Project (yes, cheesy title). What Seattle's Best did was reach out to its drinkers to find local non-profit organizations for a $5000 donation and a coffee makeover (as they note, most non-profits have terrible coffee). So while that part is a little bit of branding, the fact that Seattle's Best reached out to its community on Facebook (and through bloggers - like me - that they met at BlogHer Food and other events) to generate community awareness and community involvement: local efforts to help communities be just a little bit better.

Should more companies move beyond CSR thinking into a stakeholder management thinking? Of course - but movement like that takes time. It could make the world a better place, but more importantly do actual good for a wide range of people.



  1. There are so many reasons why more people should watch Archer, but that's another topic...

    Great post that calls to attention what companies really mean behind CSR (which is quickly turning into a buzzword, unfortunately). In my professional career, I've seen the pendulum swing both ways: one company advocated for volunteer work because it was part of its mission; another created a bunk pro bono program as a guise for winning awards and getting PR attention.

    My take on the whole thing is if a company wants to do CSR right, it should tie the program back to its core values and mission. Not everyone is going to buy into your company's good deeds if it's not a part of your corporate culture. If it's a shallow, fake program, then you may as well be working at Isis.

  2. Loved your post - And you are so right - Like McDonalds - Says Doing so much for kids but at the same time hurting their health...

  3. Jeremy: Right on! CSR shouldn't be just an exercise. Some corporations take CSR to heart and actualy have a CSR director to instill CSR into corporate branding / messaging. One example is Hess Corp., the oil company -->
    You mentioned Kaboom playgrounds. We even helped Hess showcase a local CSR effort by producing a video showing Hess execs building a playground for kids near their headquarters -->

  4. Hi Jeremy,

    Interesting post.

    There are so many points I'd like to address, but I'll try and keep it brief :)

    I think we might be in danger of equating CSR with just philanthropy or perhaps cause marketing.

    In my opinion successful and effective CSR transcends these things.

    CSR is a company's recognition that it has a broad set of responsibilities to a broad set of stakeholders. Successful and sustainable CSR isn't about driving a quick PR win, it's about focusing on how being responsible can help benefit the business, the stakeholders and society at large.

    For me, while PR can provide good counsel in the design of these programs, it cannot and should not be the primary driver.

    CSR needs to take a more strategic view of the business.

    As I see it there are two buckets.

    First is how a company works responsibly. This is a broad category including treating employees well, adhering to laws and regulations, good governance etc.

    Second is how a company serves the communities within which it works. This can include philanthropy, employee giving, volunteering etc.

    In both cases, success depends on a long term, strategic approach not a hit or miss PR project.

    I should add I'm all for companies sharing how they are delivering value to their community and/or operating responsibly, but the key thing is to put the programs and investments in place first, make progress and then communicate.

    Cause marketing has its place, but it shouldn't be mistaken for an all-up CSR program.


    Bonus link: http://tpemurphy.com/blog/?p=603