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Why is it so difficult for private companies to get recognized for CSR activities? Doing good deeds is important, but the rules of storytelling still apply.

by JERRY SILVER // Twitter, Facebook, Instagram
Digital PR specialist and CEO at Spin Factory

Zzz. Wait, what?

CSR is short for Corporate Social Responsibility. But you already knew that, right?

It’s when a company contributes to the greater good of society outside their core business — even though they don’t actually have to.

Like drilling fresh water wells in Africa, planting rainforest in the Amazon, or donating funds to disaster relief.

Companies wouldn’t be engaging in CSR activities if it weren’t for a sense of responsibility amongst the people who work there.

However, most companies would agree that it would be kind of nice if the outside world would acknowledge their activities. Because in general, it’s difficult to get public recognition for these types of activities.

So why is it so difficult to promote CSR activities — and what can a company do about it?

“They Don’t Really Care About Us”

A global brand could be allocating millions and millions of dollars to good causes, but they’ll only make headlines when they do something that’s … not so good. It’s not very rewarding, to put it mildly.

  • Is it because of lacking CSR communication skills?
  • Is it because companies are picking the wrong charities to endorse?
  • Is it because companies are better off focusing on their core business instead of trying to whitewash their hunger for profit?

While such matters might be contributing factors, the basic tendency is far more disturbing:

Most people find CSR activities to be both important and noble. But interesting? Not so much.

Such a statement is quite provoking, right? Doesn’t people care about the world at all?

Have we grown so cynical as a society that we can’t bother ourselves to praise and support companies who are trying to do the right thing?

Why CSR is Great … in Theory

As a company serving the greater good through CSR activities, in theory, you’d probably want something like this:

csr-in-theory

 

IHowever, in reality, it probably looks more like this:

csr-in-theory-2

 

How do we end up here, time and time again?

Why CSR is Boring and Important at the Same Time

Imagine going out on a busy street to ask a thousand by-passers of their opinions.

If you would ask them whether or not they think it’s important to save the rainforest, a vast majority would answer “yes”. This “yes” would indicate two things:

1. People care about saving the rainforest.

2. Saving the rainforest isn’t very interesting.

Number 1 is a good thing, but number 2 is controversial:

If everyone thinks alike, the “issue” becomes uninteresting.

If someone would write an article stating that everyone, according to a recent study, thinks that it’s important to save the rainforest, no-one would care.

Rule of thumb: No conflict = not interesting.

Our primitive brains are hardwired to be on the lookout for anything that stands out. It’s our way of filtering out the noise to be alert for anything new (and potentially threatening) in our environment.

CSR Without Newsjacking and Politicizing

One way for companies to get recognized for their CSR activities is to direct their focus to whatever is high up on the media agenda at the time (“newsjacking”), whether that’s a recent natural catastrophe or a conflict that’s fairly recent and well-reported.

This would work, but as soon as the news media looses their interest in the story, so would the organizations.

If you would instead focus on more controversial issues, like supporting pro-choice or restrictive gun laws in the United States, it wouldn’t be considered CSR anymore — it would be considered politics1.

Both newsjacking and politicizing the agenda can be something of a Pandora’s box, for sure.

But there’s a silver lining:

Skillful storytelling will always be in demand by the public. For a great storyteller, being the only one telling a particular story is a strength, not a weakness.

3 Storytelling Essentials for CSR Activities

1. There must be a clearly defined enemy, and the stronger the enemy, the more interesting the story.

In the case of the rainforest, we know that there are companies profiting from laying it to waste. Or maybe they are victims, too? The public must know who the enemy is, a vague notion won’t do. If you want people to stand by your side, they’ll need to know exactly who they’re up against.

Questions to ask:

  • Is there a clearly defined enemy?2
  • Why do you feel so strongly about taking down this enemy?
  • Why should the public join your campaign against this enemy?

2. There must be someone, not something, for people to relate to.

We don’t relate to companies, simply because we’re not companies; we’re human beings. And human beings relate to other human beings.

Questions to ask:

  • Who is fighting this fight on behalf of your company?
  • Why is he or she invested in this fight?
  • How can your target public relate to this individual?

3. There must be obstacles and stakes that will keep the narrator accountable.

What’s at stake for your company if you don’t succeed? You can’t expect people to trust or respect you if you don’t put some real stakes at the table. There must be something more at risk than just some leftover funds for the company itself.

Questions to ask:

  • What’s at stake for your company? (How will your enemy punish you if you fail?)
  • What obstacles must be conquered leading up to the “final fight”?
  • Why must your company take on this quest? To what end?

Notes:

  1. Most companies shy away from political issues that aren’t closely tied to their business objectives. And if an issue divides the population in general, chances are that this issue will divide the people working for the organization as well.
  2. The dying rainforest, or the effects thereof, are not your enemy.They are a common threat, but not an actual antagonist.

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Behind the keyboard:

Jerry Silver is the author of Doctor Spin, a PR blog that's been around for 15+ years. Via his agency Spin Factory, Jerry is advising brands on how to adapt to a 'digital first' world. In 2016, Cision Scandinavia named him "PR Influencer of the Year". Jerry lives in Stockholm, Sweden with his wife Lisah, news anchor and television host, and their three-year-old son, Jack.


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