Tying CSR with Reputation Management

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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become a buzzword for business, but too often CSR plans are little more than a grab bag of “do-good” programs.

CSR activities can pack more punch if they are welded to a disciplined reputation management system that addresses corporate vulnerabilities and opportunities.

The group called Business for Social Responsibility describes CSR plans as “achieving commercial success in ways that honor ethical values and respect people, communities and the natural environment.”

“We also say,” the group adds, “that CSR means addressing the legal, ethical, commercial and other expectations society has for business, and for making decisions that fairly balance the claims of all key stakeholders.”

However, for many companies, CSR plans become repositories for a series of sponsorships that don’t fit into any comprehensive vision and aren’t integrated into the fabric of the business itself.

More than good corporate citizenship

Limiting CSR to good corporate citizenship sacrifices the opportunity to make these efforts more meaningful to customers, employees and stakeholders, while distinguishing the company’s brand identity.

Rather than look through your in-box of invitations to sponsor events, companies should base their CSR plans on the findings of a rigorous reputation management process. Reputation management begins with a candid self-assessment of existing and potential problems facing a company. This issue audit also should identify existing and potential opportunities.

The list of identified problems and opportunities then needs to be subjected to a risk-benefit analysis. Some problems pose little risk, while others portend larger risks – and significant benefits if those risks can be avoided. This analysis allows problems and opportunities to be ranked, with problems and opportunities with the highest risks and benefits listed at the top.

The highest priorities on the list are the ones that should receive immediate attention, including in a CSR plan that is solidly integrated with business strategy.

Linking a CSR plan to a reputation issue audit and analysis guarantees that the programs a company undertakes carry deeper meaning and afford a chance for involvement that is more robust and innovative. A company suddenly can be on the offensive on issues that make a difference to its own future.

Nike, Burgerville good examples

Nike offers a good example. Faced with sharp criticism and consumer resistance over its offshore manufacturing practices, Nike sat down face-to-face with its critics. Out of that dialogue came Nike’s commitment to the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities.

While that and other actions didn’t satisfy its harshest critics, Nike has continued to engage the vast majority of its stakeholders on the issue by talking openly about the company’s actions on its www.nikebiz.com Web site. The issue hasn’t gone away, but it has dropped from the headlines even as Nike’s head-on approach enhanced the company’s reputation.

Companies such as Burgerville and Interface, a carpet manufacturer, have gone even further toward integrating CSR plans with their business models by embracing the concept of sustainability into their everyday operations.

Burgerville, with its tagline of “Fresh. Local. Sustainable,” walks its talk by relying on wind power, buying vegetarian-fed, antibiotic-free beef and recycling cooking oil into biodiesel. Employees lead the company’s composting program, which recycles food wastes, diverting as much as 85 percent of what otherwise would go to a landfill. Burgerville offers its employees affordable health care and tuition reimbursement, making its restaurants more than just places to flip hamburgers.

As a carpet-maker, Interface may seem an improbable disciple of sustainability. But its Web site, www.interfaceinc.com, reads more like a religious tract than a sales brochure. For example, Interface features what it calls Mission Zero – “our promise to eliminate any negative impact our company may have on the environment by the year 2020.”

The passion for sustainability flows from Interface Chairman Ray Anderson, who admits, “For the first 21 years of Interface’s existence, I never gave one thought to what we took from or did to the Earth.” Now, Anderson talks about climbing “Mount Sustainability” and “the day when our factories have no smokestacks and no effluents.” “Is it a dream?” asks Anderson. “Certainly, but it is a dream we share with our 5,000 associates, our vendors and our customers.”

Now that is a CSR plan with meaning and a deep connection to the company’s reputation.


Gary Conkling is a co-founder of Conkling Fiskum & McCormick, Inc., and its managing partner. His practice includes state lobbying and strategic communications. Gary is an adjunct faculty member at Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management, teaching a course on crisis communications and issues management.

In 1990, Gary formed CFM by orchestrating a spinout from Tektronix, where he was director of public affairs when the company was Oregon’s largest private employer. Gary joined Tektronix after working in Washington, D.C. as staff director for Oregon Congressmen Les AuCoin and Ron Wyden, now Oregon’s senior senator. Previously, he worked as a newspaper editor and reporter. He graduated from Seattle Pacific University.

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