6 Things I’ve learnt About CSR Communications

It’s getting close to six months since I took the European Director reins at 3BLMedia and what a honeymoon it has been.

3BL were one of the first good friends I made when I stumbled into the blogosphere and Twitterverse  like Bambi on ice, instantly forging a strong and like-minded relationship. Over two years or so they guided and helped me to understand the landscape, until we decided to announce our formal marriage back in November.

I’m a CSR strategist by nature with a healthy dose of creativity and passion for innovation thrown in. I’ve encouraged many clients to step up their communications but never really dealt in the specific detail such as my latest role requires. My learning curve has been closer to a vertical rocket launch, but all good fun. I’ve already learned so much and wanted to share a couple of the key messages so far:

Few companies connect CSR to social media

In particular, reporting is missing out. Go to Corporate Register’s website  or the latest list on The Environment Site and go through each report one by one to see how many reports (from names I thought better of. Ikea for example) are still pdf files or microsites hidden away and not even adequately connected. Some passively encourage feedback and a few have a kind of ‘share’ button somewhere if you look hard enough.  The gold medal goes to SAP for their latest outing with engaged social media thought running throughout.

and connected…

… Few companies get social media

The first in a series of non-bombshells. “Listen very carefully, I shall say zis only once” to quote a cheesy, discontinued and very British sitcom about the resistance set in wartime France – Social media is about conversations and dialogue, not broadcasts and monologues. No matter how big you are you still gotta talk to the little guy/gal. Please don’t hide behind protective PR firms that don’t get social media either. Yes, somebody in particular did wind me up.

CSR isn’t mainstream

Non-bombshell number 2. It’s something we aspire to but even though we are seeing continual improvement it’s still very, very much a niche. My travels across communications have reminded just how niche CSR is on the grander scale. Consumers are the weakest link. Those at the leadership end of the spectrum are  beginning to feel bold enough to challenge the very audience their revenues depend on. Good luck for all our sakes. We all need to work harder than living in our CSR comfort bubble and ensure those who don’t know, get to know and in a way that has meaning to the punter on the street.

Big numbers aren’t everything

Non-bombshell number 3. The ‘our network or audience is bigger than yours’ positioning statement is common across many communications fields. Whilst we are in desperate need to get beyond preaching to the CSR choir, quality and engagement is absolutely key. Even though Malcolm Gladwell is no huge fan of social media changing the world he was spot on with his understanding of key individuals in society as conduits for social epidemics. Oh, and if your original message is rubbish, sending it to millions won’t help. Don’t shoot the messenger, shoot your marketing firm.

The metrics industry

Being able to measure ROI is important but there are so many different and confusing metrics out there that it’s essential to focus on those material to your objectives. Too many communications people focus on the metrics in their own right, to impress peers and not the quality of the benefit received.

CSR people often have to manage communications too

Apart from some great communications companies out here such as Edelman, Cone, Futerra etc., mainstream marketing and communications haven’t got a clue. Even the ones who can create an average document or campaign are missing connecting to an engaged audience. Many CSR professionals are the forgotten cog in the communications wheel. Managing the integrity of the message from the raw data to its final presentation is no easy task, and often overlooked. The communications people may have the financial responsibility here but the CSR person often manages (moral and formally) the quality.

It’s an exciting time for CSR with many organisations stepping up their communications, so many more lessons to be learned and passed on to you.

I’m on  mission to build the 3BL LinkedIn group – Got something to say, to ask or looking to connect head over to browse and join in the CSR / sustainability / cause marketing conversations.

Disclosure: Corporate Register and Cone are clients of 3BL Media

16 thoughts on “6 Things I’ve learnt About CSR Communications

  1. Marika

    Hi and thank you for the food for thought, and also the links (SAP, Corporate Register, Environment Site). I just contacted Corporate Register to get the Corporate Responsibility report website link there instead of the pdf.. http://annualreport.raisio.com

    In your opinion, should CR reports be transformed to interest a bigger audience, e.g. consumers too?


    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Marika

      In a perfect world I’d love consumers to read CR reports but it isn’t going to happen. Who does actually read them?

      To interest a bigger audience quickly we need two things; better incentives and education. By better incentives I mean we need a catastrophic sized event tied directly to sustainability issues to galvanise the step change we need. Education needs to be an ongoing process to facilitate both an optimistic step change and the more likely slower incremental change we are seeing now.

      I’m an eternal optimist and I’m doing what I can to speed up the incremental process with consumers (that’s you, me, our friends, colleagues etc).

      What would you suggest we do to engage consumers? Is there a better way to communicate and educate the bigger audience?



  2. thestoryofmeaningfuluse

    spot on David, we have been getting in tune with what people want to read so they can get to work and use what they learn to work in real life…there is a lot of room now to mature into something of meaningful use..


  3. Andrea Learned

    I love how you frame some of these as “non-bombshells,” David. It’s key that those of us in this or related space realize that, while these points may be old hat to us… there are still SO MANY organizations/companies who haven’t a clue! I’ve experienced this in the marketing to women field, as well – where “did you know women make 80%+ of the purchasing decisions?!” has been stunning, bombshell news for at least a decade now.

    It is hard to keep up the passion and energy to continue to educate clients/readers about things that seem so obvious, but we’ve got to keep at it. Thanks for all the reminders…


    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Andrea

      That’s a great point. There’s probably a whole series of blog posts about the things we as practitioners take for granted or the assumptions we make.

      It’s only when we step (or get forced) out of our own comfort zones that we notice the not-so-obvious to the wider community. That’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about smaller businesses because you don’t get a choice, it’s always outside a CSR persons comfort zone!


  4. Marika

    Returning to the topic of CR reporting..

    I would be a hundred times better at my job if I knew The Answer. I would really like to be able to create reports, that would have some consumer interest too. Our latest report includes real life cases in addition to figures, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. Do you have any examples of these huge events you mentioned?

    If I post a topic on Facebook, it usually gets a lot of likes and replies from my friends. Unless the topic is CR related. Then no-one clicks.

    On the other hand it’s hard to blame anyone. Who would really have the time to search the backgrounds of all companies they are associated with. I would like to see something similar to product labels (such as carbon footprint, fair trade, organic etc.), that would give consumers more wholesome information about the product and company at the time when they need it. But let’s face it: a plain label just can’t do it.

    I am eagerly awaiting for the technology evolve.. I think the key is the time, place and comparability of CR information, at least when it comes to consumer goods.


  5. Riccardo Wagner

    Hi David,

    thanks for this article – once again you hit it. I myself conducted a study, which i will release in May, on the topic of CSR/Social Media, with a focus on the use of Facebook. I looked at the first 100 Companies in the Global 1000 Index (JustMeans). In short: there is no csr-communication on facebook. Very few companies are mixing some csr-related news in there newsfeed, but it is miles away from what could be done – even if Facebook might not be the perfect platform. What i see in Social Media, is not only the chances in communication but in real productive interaction, even collaboration/crowdsourcing used for developing a companies csr-strategy. But the Problem is, that one can think thus far ahead, but most companies havent even begun to embrace and understand social media in the “normal” marketing/communications, so that an effective use in csr-communications is still a very long way off. So much more enthusiasts like you are needed. Greetings from Cologne Germany – Riccardo


    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Riccardo

      The CSR communications world is a very confused one indeed. Many organisations struggle with basic communication of CSR never mind engaging in social media. The crux of the debate appears to occupy the space around what is the difference between stakeholder engagement, marketing, PR, advertising and then throw in the transparency and crowdsourcing buzzwords to really mix it up!

      CSR professionals are having to take the responsibility of managing communications people, increasingly relied upon to ensure the messages retain their integrity.

      It is improving, without any doubt. It is frustrating for those of us within the industry that know there is so much great work happening out there that never gets the credit it richly deserves.



    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Shivam

      Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the post. What would you add or change to make the post better?

      Will catch up on Twitter later 🙂



  6. Marc de Sousa Shields

    David, great post. Couple questions if its not too late.

    What do you mean when you say consumers are the weakest link? In anticipation of your response, i consider the consumer the least heard link and that as individuals (not necessarily as consumers per se or employees etc) they struggle to communicate closely held values to the market place.

    Second, I certainly love the external focus of your article but do/you did consider the role (and dare i say critical importance) of internal CSR communications as a part of getting it right within for external authenticity?

    Really Really enjoy you blog!!



  7. luisa himiob

    Hello, David. I’ve been browsing the web for updates on the CSR scenario because I’ll soon be starting an e-learning program for adults on the subject. Things have been evolving quite rapidly and professionals who have assisted corporations in this area have to run to catch up in order to offer a more efficient service to our clients. “Sustainability” is also undergoing changes in concept and outreach. Have you thoughts on this? I’ll be keeping in touch with your blog because, apart from the knowledge you may have in the matter, I find it refreshing and optimistic -two things this world needs a lot of in these times of crises. CSR is a field that is virgin in many aspects and has great possibilities and opportunities. This is part of what I wish to convey to my future students.




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