As you look ahead to next year's strategic planning, where does corporate social responsibility strategy (CSR) figure into your priorities? It is certainly a fashionable topic in business headlines right now:
- The Business Roundtable, with 193 prominent CEO members, delivered a new corporate responsibility missive. Its members declared that corporations’ responsibilities aren’t limited to shareholders, and should include employees, customers, suppliers, and the communities in which companies operate. More than 93% of members supported the declaration.
- Nearly immediately, the Council of Institutional Investors challenged the statement, calling it a move to diminish shareholder rights. Other experts claimed the announcement is an attempt to undermine the concept of managerial accountability.
- A Bloomberg Businessweek article reported that Unilever’s new CEO, Alan Jope, is pushing the organization’s individual brands to identify and support specific social focus areas. Unilever labels twenty-eight of its brands as purposeful. Jope is saying that any Unilever brand that can’t land on a meaningful purpose could be on the selling block.
Where does your organization stand on adopting and living out a corporate social responsibility strategy?
If your brand is suddenly considering a corporate social responsibility strategy, you need to invest significant time to make sure you have an authentic position from which to start. Adopting a strategy in this area is a long-term play, in terms of considering the possibility and later committing to a public position and strategy. This is not an area in which fads will ever pay off.
15 Vital Questions to Ask about Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy
If this year’s strategic planning looks to CSR, make sure you address these fifteen questions EARLY. They will help you gain a better understanding of your brand's foundation and potential strategy development and implementation approach. They’re also effective for engaging people in your organization with different viewpoints on the company, your customers, and social issues beyond the corporate radar:
- Are we hearing from customers about gaps in what our brand stands for relative to areas of social concern and challenge for them?
- What about customer social aspirations, both voiced and unvoiced? What might customers want our brand to address?
- How does what we're hearing differ at senior levels vs. grassroots comments, aspirations, and frustrations? Are there differences in the nature or intensity of comments based on who they’re from?
- What socially oriented messages or positions have we communicated or advocated in the marketplace during the past five years? Have we taken definitive actions, public or in private, to back up our talk?
- What promises have we previously made in the market relative to any social positions? Have we fulfilled on these promises, are we still working on fulfilling them, or have we failed to follow through?
- What social causes do our employees actively support? Are there causes that have informal, yet broad support (with action backing it up) within our organization?
- Are there any social causes that our organization once supported? Why did they fall out of favor? Are the causes still relevant today, and do we have any organizational passion for them?
- Speaking of passion, what aspirations and issues do our people passionately want our organization to address?
Following honest and open discussions on these questions, what specifics and overall themes emerge?
How Ready Is Your Brand for a CSR Strategy?
If your organization has repeatedly spoken about and acted on social issues, maybe your brand is a social native, albeit potentially one that doesn't make the short list of social brands experts and academics regularly tout. If you have an authentic claim as a socially responsible organization, you can move directly to exploring potential customer acceptance for an ongoing brand commitment to society at large.
Suppose the conversations reveal that your brand has engaged in more talking then doing. Or maybe there are customer concerns and aspirations that your brand has ignored. If this is the case, developing a social responsibility strategy is the least of your concerns. Your first step, probably, is to shut up and focus on backtracking to actually do what you said you would do, as long as it is still relevant and meaningful. The focus should be on quietly doing, without seeking attention, for some time to come.
If the discussion on these questions suggests that your organization has few market expectations for a social focus and little passion behind any specific cause, we recommend being careful. The absence of meaningful specifics suggests that your brand might be making a significant reach to claim an authentic social position. In this case, look carefully and deeply at customer acceptance of a social position for your brand. Resolve to invest considerable time after identifying potential causes to quietly build an authentic presence and a track record of doing actual, real good before talking about it.