Publicising environmental CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives can boost a company’s reputation, but get it wrong and the accusations of “greenwash” could stick. Cambridge Judge Business School delivers the five principles companies should apply to communications about environmental CSR to avoid accusations of greenwash.
1. Communication is not a substitute for action.
Publicising environmental CSR initiatives can boost a company’s reputation, attracting customers, investors and talent. But companies must be careful not to exaggerate the impact of green CSR initiatives, warns Dr Stelios Zyglidopoulos, University Lecturer in Strategy at Cambridge Judge Business School.
“A communications strategy is not a substitute for action,” says Dr Zyglidopoulos, pointing out that even the best communications strategy in the world will be useless if there is no substance behind it. Most reputable companies now have some kind of corporate social responsibility programme in place; and in almost every case one of the most important elements within that programme will be a commitment to improve the company’s environmental performance.
“If the company is a green company then communications about environmental CSR are easier,” says Dr Zyglidopoulos, “but if you are not green then the communication function in the CSR division is a problem. It’s important for the communications manager to be able to say to their manager: ‘I can’t communicate a positive message about it, because we’re not really doing anything there’.”
2. No cover-ups – face up to major problems quickly and honestly
Dr Zyglidopoulos’s research suggest that if or when environmentally damaging events or practices occur or come to light, companies would be best advised to face up to their shortcomings in public, rather than try to spin their way out of difficulty.
Be honest,” says Dr Zyglidopoulos. “People understand that companies are not perfect, and they’re OK with that, as long as you can show you’re making progress.
And work carried out in 2010 by a group of academics including Dr Andreas Eisingerich, Associate Professor of Marketing at Imperial College Business School and an alumnus of Cambridge Judge’s PhD programme, contradicts the optimistic view held by some companies that having participated in CSR activities protects companies and their brands in the event of negative publicity. “We didn’t find this in our research,” says Dr Eisingerich. “We did find that a company is always better off speaking to consumers directly and honestly.”
3. The media should be engaged, not feared
Many public relations problems companies experience can be attributed in part to an inability or unwillingness to engage effectively with the media. This may be the result of a fear within the company that the media are only really interested in bad news stories, says Dr Zyglidopoulos. “But the chances of that happening are exaggerated,” he insists.
In 2012, alongside colleagues from universities in Spain and Italy, Dr Zyglidopoulos studied CSR communication practices at 251 large European corporations and conducted in-depth interviews with communications managers. The team published a short paper in the MIT Sloan Management Review in Spring 2013: “Communicating Corporate Social Responsibility to a Cynical Public”. “Our findings indicate that many beliefs about the risks associated with CSR communication are exaggerated, and that companies that communicate honestly about their activities have little to fear,” the paper declared.
Companies that do engage with the media proactively will also learn which media formats are best suited to particular messages, from mainstream print or broadcast advertising to use of social media.
4. Don’t underestimate the public
Over the past 20 years most people have become ever more sceptical about the environmental claims made by businesses. It is usually a mistake to assume that few people will be interested, or will understand the value of environmental CSR activities. “It’s not the 1970s any more: these issues have been around for a while – people get it,” says Dr Zyglidopoulos. And the fact that companies are so frequently asked about their green credentials by consumers, investors and potential recruits reveals an appetite for this type of information among these groups.
But try to present your company as the greenest, most socially responsible company in the world and you may be setting yourself up for a fall. Dr Zyglidopoulos cites the impact on the oil company BP of environmental disasters including the Prudhoe Bay oil spill in Alaska in 2006 and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. The effect on BP’s brand may have been exacerbated by the company’s attempt to emphasise its green credentials in publicity campaigns beforehand.
5. CSR communication is the responsibility of everyone, not just the few
Unless a company takes some steps to integrate environmentally responsible business practices into its operations and culture there will always be a risk that off-message actions of some employees will threaten the success of positive CSR messages. “If you’re consistent in what you’re doing then communications will be easier,” says Dr Zyglidopoulos. That should mean a consistent approach across the organisation – and ideally across the supply chain too.