Earlier this month, while juggling children (anyone else completely fed up of the lockdown juggle struggle now?), we dropped in on an Edie webinar about the future of corporate social responsibility.
CSR is often, not unfairly, dismissed as little more than a smokescreen to distract from terrible day-in-day-out business practices (we’ll let George explain).
But CSR can be a real force for good, so we were keen to find out if and how it might change going forwards, particularly with coronavirus looming large.
The expert panel pulled together by Edie included representatives from Innocent Drinks, Mitie and British American Tobacco. As leading distributor of the world’s deadliest consumer product, British American Tobacco was an interesting choice to have on the panel. Yes, the cynic in us raises an eyebrow but we were also fascinated to see how you create a meaningful CSR strategy when your product kills people. Spoiler alert – it seems you don’t. You throw meaningful out of the window and focus on smokescreen. George would have a field day.
Nevertheless, the webinar covered some good stuff. Let’s have a butcher’s at our key takeaways.
Sticks of Rock
Embedding a culture of CSR has always been key to doing it properly – and now, it’s more important than ever. Remote working could become the new normal for the foreseeable future, so companies that see CSR as little more than an add-on could come unstuck.
One organisation excelling in this area is Innocent, where each employee has an objective to make the company a force for good (something we do at Jack & Grace too, by eating as much Fairtrade chocolate as possible). This ensures CSR runs through Innocent like a stick of rock and means staff have stayed engaged with doing good even during lockdown.
Environmental sustainability has been a key issue in CSR for a while, but will coronavirus mean the focus shifts to community engagement? Yes, according to our experts.
Well yes, and no.
Community engagement is going to be important in helping the economy recover from the pandemic. At the same time, coronavirus is helping to slow down the effects of climate change – so the environment may become a bit less of a hot topic.
But rather than the focus changing completely, the panel think it will expand to encompass both the environment and community engagement, which could potentially lead to a more holistic approach to CSR.
Never ones to miss a trick, Mitie are currently concocting a community engagement strategy. This will see employees given an extra day of holiday – with the proviso that it must be taken to volunteer. To ensure the plan is as effective as possible, Mitie is also corresponding with local groups to find out where help is most needed. It’s hardly ground-breaking stuff, but we suppose a good start for the company that managed immigration removal centres for the Home Office during the Windrush Scandal. Conditions at these detention centres, which Mitie still run, have been described as ‘dirty’, ‘rundown’ and ‘insanitary’ – maybe they could do with a few volunteers to help with the cleaning?
CSR is often a bit of a balancing act between a business’ objectives and the needs of the cause it’s helping; this can make doing it meaningfully difficult and, in some cases, impossible. This problem isn’t going to go away, but our panel did offer some advice on improving your CSR comms:
Make your CSR about the cause you’re trying to help, rather than the message you want to project
Focus on making your communications readable and accessible (that means actioning strategic due diligence on the implementation and delivery of technical terminology and jargon to reduce capacity thereof and achieve streamlined, fully inclusive and onboardable CSR reporting)
Use humour, where appropriate (we may still need to work on this one)
To finish, our hitherto loquacious panellists were asked to sum up their final thoughts in just one sentence. The consensus was something along the lines of: “be transparent and report your message clearly.”
These kind of panel events are always tricky, aren’t they? Those with people, planet, profit at their core appear next to those who, bluntly, don’t. And with little opportunity to call them out. Of course, it’s useful to reflect on how coronavirus has changed the mood of the country, and world, and think about what that means for CSR. But wouldn’t it be better to use this unprecedented opportunity, one we’ll hopefully never get again, to completely rethink business as usual?
How could we redesign a CSR strategy to double its positive impact? Or, even better, how could we redesign a business to truly put people and planet first?
With that in mind, here’s a freebie, British American Tobacco. It probably means a strategy where, over time, success means demand for your product no longer exists. You’re welcome.