The Surprising CSR Mistakes Companies Are Still Making (And Why We Love to Fix Them)

June 6, 2016

by Michelle Mulkey

The pace of innovation in the corporate responsibility space is fast. In my six years counseling FleishmanHillard’s largest portfolio of corporate responsibility and global impact clients, I’ve watched the bar rise year over year in stunning ways. What used to make headlines is now expected. You’re dinged if you don’t do good, but it is getting harder and harder to get attention, let alone applause.

Yet, despite the widespread recognition that this rising bar makes it harder to impress consumers, engage employees and drive reputation, many companies are still making surprising mistakes that keep them from creating greater social impact and reputation results:

  1. Doing too much that doesn’t add up to much. Between volunteer programs, charitable giving, matched giving and sustainability, the biggest problem many companies have is doing too much that is disconnected. Even employees are easily lost in the whiplash of one thing after another without a clear sense of the big picture. Packaging all programs together can help create a whole that is greater than the sum of each part.
  2. Letting legacy lead for too long. Legacy is a particular risk in charitable giving. Too often early choices on which issue to give to and with which partner came from a CEO’s personal passion or when the company only thought about the community surrounding headquarters. In this day and age, companies need to be making change, not just giving to charity. To be viewed as a leader, leading brands need to focus on issues that are relevant to the business so that it makes business sense to put in time, talent and treasure. This shared value alignment is key to employees feeling an authentic sense of purpose, and consumers and investors valuing the investment.
  3. Talking about inputs instead of outcomes and programs instead of causes. There is diminishing interest in hearing a company talk about itself. Yet there is still too much content coming out that’s only about what a company did, how much money they gave and how many volunteer hours they logged—when they should be highlighting their impact. Companies talk about issues of focus, but best-in-class CSR brands talk about causes, their perspective about how to move the needle and what they’ve learned along the way.
  4. Telling stories rather than engaging audiences to take action. Participation and engagement drives awareness and credit. We work with clients to create engagement moments for employees, executives and consumers so they participate and take action through the programs—rather than just reading about them.
  5. Mismatching goals and communications resources. Whether spending too big a percentage of the budget on the annual CSR report—which does not drive employee or consumer awareness—or only doing media relations, the mismatch between the goals, audiences and communications efforts is a common mistake. When we onboard a new client, one of the first things we look at is time and money resources and the goals and audiences for CSR communications so we can prioritize the activities that align.

All too often, when a client comes to us asking “How do we get more credit and awareness for our positive role in society?” we find one of these five missteps causing the gap between inputs and outcomes. Our favorite projects commence from there.