Scholar: Corporate social responsibility requires in-house focus

Corporate social responsibility initiatives carry the potential for significant “blowback” if they are perceived as market-driven rather than at the core of company operations. And if that happens, public relations (PR) practitioners are in the direct line of fire. So says organizational communication scholar Steve May in a report supported by a grant from The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State. May offers corporations a solution: focus first on your employees.  

“Public relations today finds itself embedded within yet another ethical quandary, unable to meet the demands placed upon it by (often) conservative business leaders, the political left and the public,” said May, who is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “For PR practitioners the stakes have never been higher.”

The growth of strategic corporate social responsibility (CSR) has led to this situation, reports May in a chapter in a recent book, "Public Relations Research: European and International Perspectives and Innovations." The chapter is titled “Reconsidering Strategic Corporate Social Responsibility: Public Relations and Ethical Engagement of Employees in a Global Economy.”

There is a danger in aiming CSR projects at external publics only. It can lead corporate critics and community activists to see CSR as a set of PR tools to “manage” stakeholder concerns and limit corporate accountability for misconduct. Strategic corporate social responsibility often seeks to align philanthropy and profit motives. Corporations “give back” to constituencies and address the needs of stakeholders. This is based on the belief that market forces will create financial incentives for firms engaged in socially responsible actions. 

The problem is that most corporations have trouble identifying which social issues to support. There are conflicting priorities. Frequently, May said, insufficient attention is given to the expertise and planning required to do CSR right. PR staffers get caught in the cross-hairs.

“Public relations practitioners are likely to be on the front lines of any backlash from new CSR initiatives that are not backed by corporate planning or expertise,” he said.

As a solution he argues that corporations should focus first and foremost on initiatives that help a traditionally overlooked stakeholder -- their own employees. When they do that, other things fall into place.

“If strategic CSR is to have any long-term benefit for society, attention must first be turned to corporate employees themselves,” he said. “If the corporation has not been able to attend to its own employees, how can it be expected to address the social needs of diverse sets of stakeholders with a range of divergent interests?” 

PR people understand this first-hand, he notes in his report done for The Arthur W. Page Center which is a research center founded in 2004 at the Pennsylvania State University to study and advance ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other forms of public communication.

“Any good public relations professional knows that the best CSR plans can be destroyed quite quickly because of media coverage of inhumane working conditions at home or abroad.”

May, and other scholars, believe there are three generations of corporate social responsibility to employees. The first generation is based on what not to do; practices to avoid. The second is about fair compensation and reasonable working conditions. The third focuses on proactive responsibilities such as creating a just and sustainable world. 

“Many PR practitioners have long sought to move business executives from first generation CSR -- and its reactive approach to crises -- to third generation CSR with its proactive emphasis on global community.”

The keys to making that happen, May said, lie in the creation of internal policies impacting employees to ensure the transition from stage one to stage three.
First, firms must align their ethics codes, employee handbooks, workforce training and development and performance appraisal with their informal culture. Ethics codes alone are not enough unless the informal company culture backs them. Ethically engaged corporations also should practice open, informal and candid forms of communication and value the perspectives of all workers and help their ability to voice opinions and concerns. 

Transparency in policies, procedures, mission statements and governance also is important.

“Examples of ‘being the last to know’ are not rampant in the (public relations) profession just by accident,” said May. “As a result, public relations is ideally situated to clarify how a lack of internal transparency necessarily negates external transparency, as well.”

Corporate leaders should set the tone that CSR is a core business practice rather than a marketing strategy.

“For public relations, the key here is to move away from ‘managing’ stakeholders to engaging them, beginning with employees,” May said.

Courage is the final element required, he said.

“Ethically engaged corporations have the courage to admit mistakes, reject needless conformity and encourage risk taking. In addition, their employees have the courage to identify, assess and resolve ethical dilemmas.”

May concluded that only when corporations show internal operational excellence in ethics and responsibility will their publics believe that corporate social responsibility is more substance than image.

The Arthur W. Page Center annually awards up to $75,000 in small grants to support those making important contributions to the field. For more information on the Page Center contact Cinda Kostyak at or 814-863-6307. 

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Last Updated December 03, 2009