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Are Corporate Social Responsibility Projects Worth the Money?

Yesterday’s Q&A concerned Teneshia Jackson-Warner‘s vision of a PR/marketing industry focused on “serving” rather than “selling”–or providing work that truly improves both the lives of a given brand’s customers and the communities in which they live.

It’s a tall order. Firms adopting Jackson-Warner’s model would move beyond corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects that are–let’s be honest–almost always designed to improve public perceptions of a brand rather than the lives of people touched by that brand.

These considerations leave us very interested in the most recent study conducted by the Reputation Institute, which asks whether CSR efforts are worth the time and money required. The study’s conclusion: In most cases, they’re probably not. As the Institute’s recent Forbes guest post puts it, CSR isn’t necessarily dead–it’s just “mismanaged.”

Interesting. How so?

First some statistics:

  • Only 35 percent of study participants around the globe see the world’s top 100 “most reputed companies” as “good corporate citizens that support good causes and protect the environment.”
  • Consumers only see 6 of these 100 companies in a generally positive light.
  • The public gives 78 of these top 100 brands a rating of “average” in terms of transparency and ethics.
  • 4 percent of respondents believe that companies in general simply cannot be trusted.

Sounds bad–despite the fact that simple ad campaigns touting volunteer efforts and other CSR projects can improve public perceptions of brands as troubled as BP.

Other interesting facts about companies with positive reputations:

  • Participants found Walt Disney to be the best “corporate citizen” in terms of social responsibility.
  • Microsoft won for “best governance” or most responsibly run company.
  • Google won the “workplace” category as most appealing employer.

OK, so what are all the other brands doing wrong? The answer is both simple and predictable: they’re making vague statements and paying for overproduced ads about company ethics rather than simply living these “core values” and practicing them every day.

Most importantly, brands need to realize that reputation management is an ongoing project, not a form of damage control. You’d think this to be a comically obvious conclusion, but many brands clearly don’t get it–they’re only interested in pursuing CSR in the wake of PR disasters like the Gulf Spill or the Apple Foxconn scandal.

Here’s an example given by the institute: Last year Coke and Pepsi ran competing campaigns about which brand is better at raising money for charity, but “the adverts didn’t mention sugar, obesity, or environmental impact”–so they were all but meaningless.

Of course we understand that most businesses are more concerned with revenue than reputation–they exist to make money on goods and services. But CSR projects can be extremely valuable when executed in the right way.

The purpose of CSR is not to fight accusations of oversight or wrongdoing, it’s to help define a brand. The sooner businesses realize that, the sooner they’ll get the results they want from their investments.

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