Companies face the challenge of striking the right balance between overstating their CSR contributions and using CSR activities for positive public relations. Publicising CSR initiatives can be a source of good public relations only if it helps improve a company’s reputation and encourages customers and others to stay involved with the business.
As Caribbean companies progress from corporate philanthropy to incorporating corporate social responsibility in their business models and business practices, global communications have created a context within which public opinion is becoming more influential in the acceptance of a company’s social behaviour.
Influence of Social Media
With the increase in social media use and the availability of information, companies risk stakeholder scepticism as they try to convey the intrinsic motives of their CSR activities to the public who believe that companies often use CSR as a marketing tool to gain media attention and mileage.
For example, Mastercard recently faced a backlash on social media when it announced that it would donate 10,000 meals to starving children in Latin America and the Caribbean every time footballers, Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr scored. Within a short time, it was likened to a ‘horrible publicity stunt’ with many suggesting that Mastercard should just donate the meals.
In the Caribbean, despite Massey Stores’ good intentions, their initiative to protect the environment through the sale of single-use and reusable bags to pack supermarket purchases was met with scepticism as some felt it was an opportunity to reduce their overheads. Massey quickly sought to publicise that they were engaged in other socially responsible business practices.
CSR is a Not a Quick Public Relations Fix
We also find that the use of CSR as a public relations fix to repair or maintain a company’s reputation is becoming increasingly difficult as seen in the alcohol and cocoa industries.
Recognising that alcohol drinking destroys individuals, families and communities, the alcohol industry has engaged in various CSR initiatives directed at limiting the damage caused by alcohol. These initiatives include encouraging responsible drinking, voluntary regulation, philanthropic commitments with social organisations to reduce underage drinking, reduce drinking and driving and, enlisting the support of retailers to reduce harmful drinking.
However, critics of these alcohol CSR initiatives highlight the inherent conflict of interest that exists between the economic objectives of the industry and public health objectives to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, which generally requires reductions in alcohol consumption. There is a growing concern among the public health community that the companies design their CSR initiatives to serve public relations goals and their broader political and economic interests.
The cocoa industry provides another example. As a result of the relatively low commodity price for cocoa, farmers who are cash-strapped use cheap labour to survive. This has led to an increase in the number of children working on African cocoa farms, some of whom have been sold to farmers by their parents. While the big players in the industry advocate for the eradication of child labour they have not increased the price of cocoa which is the main cause of this problem. Their approach has been to fund programs to educate the farmers on how bad this practice is.
As stakeholder scepticism on the motives of companies increase and their views are widely shared on social media and other global communication platforms, independent and authentic communications on CSR are becoming more critical to building and maintaining the credibility of companies as good corporate citizens.
Today, communication strategies respond to authenticity. The pressure for clear communications from trusted spokespeople is increasing as customers demand that companies genuinely give back to society and use their philanthropy and business practices to do more than increase their profit margin.