Thursday, 22 April 2010

CSR + PR = ?

I’m doing my dissertation on the topic of CSR, trying to understand the controversial aspects related to the relationship between CSR and PR. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard about CSR, but I’m almost sure that it came from the PR point of view. After reading more, I found out that there are extreme views on CSR and its purposes. Some people say that CSR activity is used only for PR purposes, like reputation building etc. Others are saying that it’s not about PR, it’s about a way of doing business, sustainability (more recently), it’s a necessity in the context of the current degradation of society and environment, it helps the company be competitive (hmm, is there no relationship between competitiveness and PR???). I even found an aggressive motto on the blog of a CSR international conference which took place in Romania in 2009: “to those of you that think CSR is a PR or marketing tool, I recommend not to come to the conference or read more”. Personally, I would have said: “to those of you that think CSR is ONLY a PR or marketing tool, I recommend not to come to the conference or read more”. Because I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. CSR in not only a PR tool, it has more purposes and determining factors, but it has a PR side also. Then why did they invite to the conference as speakers ‘Head of External Relations’ or ‘Corporate Communication Leader’ or even more striking, ‘Head of Corporate Communication & Sustainable Development’. I don’t know what those people talked about, as I wasn’t at the conference, but the fact that they have been invited raised some questions in my head on the apparent non-relationship between CSR and PR.

And as an argument, I will talk about the most appreciated CSR activity in UK, Marks&Spencer’s Plan A. It started in 2007, when they decided to set out 100 commitments to be achieved in 5 years. Looking at this, and how the plan is working until now, and the fact that they even extended the plan until 2015 with another 80 commitments, we can say that indeed, it is a way of doing business. It represents their core value, which is sustainability. Until now, they achieved 46 commitments.

I found some interesting ideas in an article written by Marks & Spencer's Mike Barry and Lucy Calver. They say that the era of CSR is over and sustainability is the new CSR.

The first lesson is not unique to M&S. Many global businesses, including Nike, Unilever and Google, have recognised that the days of corporate social responsibility (CSR) are over. CSR was all about managing a few sensitive areas that had the potential to generate positive or negative headlines. To be a credible player today, however, you have to understand all the social and environmental issues that are relevant to your business.

Ok, so what they say is that before, CSR was all about PR, generating headlines. But what does ‘credible player’ mean? It means that CSR or sustainability still has its PR side, more specifically, reputation management, even though it’s not only about this anymore. And talking about reputation, I found another interesting part in an article:

The new report puts the environment front and center. Retailers, according to recent research from Covalence, have entered a new age of corporate citizenship in which not only working conditions but environmental impacts of production and products are playing a large role on reputation. M&S ranked at number one as the most reputable company in the eyes of British consumers in the UK rankings of the Global Reputation Pulse Study 2009 published by the Reputation Institute.

I believe the word ‘reputation’ has been used enough times in this quote to make us see the PR purpose.

Another interesting aspect is the following statement of the Marks&Spencer representatives: ‘Moreover, we believe that communication, even more than technology, is the key to building a sustainable future.’ Isn’t that PR? Communicating with suppliers, consumers, stakeholders in general to produce sustainability means PR. It means, in terms of theory, the symmetrical communication of Grunig.

From what I wrote here, we can learn two things:

1. PR is a tool used in the production of CSR;
2. CSR, among others, has PR purposes.

These two represent my assumptions in my dissertation. August will bring out the truth.


  1. It seems to me that CSR professionals and scholars are trying to separate its practice from PR and MK, and the comment of the organizer (“to those of you that think CSR is a PR or marketing tool, I recommend not to come to the conference or read more”) just confirm this hypothesis.
    Personally I think that CSR is the perfect area to debate about the eternal "war" between the managerial and societal approach of organizations, and its professionals simply prefer to keep out of the argument (as a child when their parents are discussing).
    However, I would say that the practice of PR necessarily implies the use of CSR. Please let us know in august if your assumptions based on Rumania were right :)

  2. It seems that the reluctance to associate CSR with PR has something to do with the negativity that is connected to PR by the wider world...which is my assumption for my dissertation! But I also think the connection is inevitable and positive - companies may as well improve their image while doing positive work. The premise of that has to be, however, that their image will be improved and that the work is positive. Who better to decide that than PR practitioners who understand stakeholders and corporate image?