106233_interviewQ:What is the relationship between CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and PR (Public Relations)?

A: The short answer is PR can be both a blessing and a curse to CSR. It is a matter of which comes first and what is the intention.

Done properly and with a company that embraces the strategic and integrated nature of CSR, PR is a vehicle of sharing with the world the progress they are making, or what the world may not know about them. Done improperly, for example when CSR is seen by the company as a marketing problem, the latest market fad, or a PR fix – PR is tantamount to “greenwashing” the “sins” of a company. True CSR guides the company away from making the “sins” or mitigating them in the first place.

CSR should be an integrated, sustainable, and systematic approach to business. It belongs as a core component to the strategies and structure of companies. CSR is about being good corporate citizens to all stakeholders – stockholders, employees, customers, community, supply chain, and the environment. It is the old social contract idea, the right to exist as a company. It is about the sustainability of the business through integrity and smart business decisions that recognize and integrate the impact on and influence of all stakeholders. I like CSR International‘s reworking of the CSR acronym as Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility as it speaks to the integrational aspects of CSR. They are calling it CSR 2.0.

Companies who do not understand that CSR is about business sustainability and integrity as much as it is about social programs, often make the mistake of making CSR a marketing or PR program/problem. By doing so they essentially “green-wash” their company. In my opinion, PR should lightly handle CSR initiatives until the CSR program has momentum and there is something to actually celebrate and brag about. Celebrating decency and expected behavior is not good PR on CSR. It is artificial and could cause more harm than good. PR should let the public know that there is a CSR program, that there will be a report, and what some of the programs are that are under development, or highlight ongoing/historical CSR efforts. Report on the activities but not out of proportion to the other activities of the company.

As a career long change agent, I know that steering change in organizations takes time, embedding, and momentum. New CSR programs take time to mature and years to yield significant, sustainable results though quite often there are substantial shifts that occur in the first year. What you measure gets paid attention to. So often the first steps of CSR is measurement – taking an inventory on where the company stands with respect their impact on society, economy, and the environment. This is often accomplished through a GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) checklist report or a GHG (Green House Gas) report. This is merely a starting point. The true test of sustainability and a company committed to CSR is history of improvement and performance. Unfortunately these initial documents tend to be fodder for PR and Marketing departments, which in their need for short term results and fantastic figures tend to overstate or understate the findings as they try to make the company look good. In CSR, however, the proof is in the year-to-year changes, the response from stakeholders, the integrity of the companies actions and words.

CSR is about smart business practices. It is about constant improvement and integrity. PR is about reporting on the events as they occur or showcasing a history of events and trending. The danger is when the showcasing precedes the actual work.

Copyright ©2009 Matthew Rochte, Opportunity Sustainability℠- Share with attribution
Opportunity Sustainability℠ is a Midwest-based sustainability and corporate responsibility consulting firm specializing in green innovation and seeing opportunities where others see burdens. Matthew Rochte, an experienced, operations-based sustainability consultant, works with company management to navigate and realize the opportunities in taking their company green and growing sustainably.

A special thanks goes out to Tunde Szentes @tundeszentes, a #csr Twitter colleague who inspired me to write up my thoughts on the subject.

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  • Thank you for the answer!

  • Hi Tunde. It is an interesting dance. There is a great discussion over at Development Crossing, indirectly, on this subject as well about whether or not CSR is a siloed function or integrated.

  • Love the article. I didn t get the CSR 2.0 of professor Waynes until I read what you wrote.

    It s pretty much what my company is trying to do at the moment. Hard work I suppose.

    I read recently about green kaizen .. or green leaning. Sounds like a really effective , process orientated business way of measure and improve sustainability of an organisation.

  • Matthew Rochte, Opportunity Sustainability

    Kaizen is a culture and philosophy of continuous improvement. Though typically it the focus is on systems and products.

    Lean in terms of manufacturing is a about reducing errors, systematizing, and simplifying processes. Six Sigma & TQM are in the same vein.

    Kaizen & Lean by their very philosophical nature should be green. Reducing waste, improving proceses, reducing materials, reducing errors. So in that respect “Green Kaizen” and “Green Lean” are a bit redundant. However, they could be emphasizing the environmental impact of these process improvements. Or they could be creating “green task forces” or even CSR as a part of expanding the scope of Kaizen.


  • I enjoyed the most recent article on your site re: the characteristics of social media tools. It got me to thinking about how the nature of communications used in business needs to be totally rethought in order to be socially responsible and sustainable. From my brief thinking about it thus far, it means to me that the “PR campaigns” of the past – which are usually very expensive, front-end loaded, flash-in-the-pan “programs” that typically have no staying power and are ditched by management as soon as the next urgent thought or issue crosses their desk – have to be rethought and communications needs to be approached from the perspective of what it takes to create behavioral and cultural change needs to be used in its place.

  • Tumise

    This article is very articulate, but I believe that CSR should not just be a strategic measure by companies to show they are responsible corporate citizens- as an isolated function from PR. i hold the opinion that CSR should be inculcated within the overall PR function of a firm or organization. the act of being responsible should be showcased and proven and this is more linear when it comes within the ambits of establishing and maintaining good relationships with the various publics of the organization.

  • Danny Gray

    I think your view of PR is shallow. PR practitioners are much more than just people who communicate to the public.

  • I’m sorry to hear that. I have a great deal of respect for PR professionals and PR firms having worked with many over the years. The CSR v PR challenge is about choosing long term strategic thinking and story telling over short term uninformed gains. In the best world, CSR/Sustainability is embedded into the fabric of the company’s culture and they have a long term strategic relationship with the PR firm/professional.

    I believe the fundamental premise of your argument has merit, as I say in this and subsequent articles, when company leadership does not understand this long-term and interconnected nature of CSR/sustainability and how to utilize a PR relationship, they simply use PR firms as communicators rather than strategic allies.

    PR firms should be strategic communication allies, looking forward into the future, spotting trends and possibilities, measuring impact of the current and past messaging, and sharing the story of the company as it engages the world. So yes, I agree, they are so much more than people who communicate with the public.

    Lastly, bear in mind this article was written in 2009 as a CSR response to the question of CSR v PR. There were lively discussions on and at the time. A lot has changed since then. PR and CSR/Sustainability are both now being seen by companies as strategic allies rather than “mouth pieces” and “philanthropy”, respectively.

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