• Monday, March 04, 2024
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BusinessDay

Talking about corporate social responsibility (2)

keith_richards

Last week I reproduced my presentation to the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations on the topic of CSR. Continuing on, I reflected how building a credible CSR programme has its own challenges. I break these into: Selection and definition, Resource and management, Communication, Measurement, Integrity and interference, and CSR overload.

Selection and definition. Choose areas that meet the necessary criteria and consider when others are already in that space. Select those that are affordable and sustainable. Choose partners with integrity and credibility. Decide, is it marketing or CSR? Cowbell Mathematics Competition meets both criteria but does that reduce its effectiveness as a programme? Ultimately, consumers and communities will judge.

Resource and management. To be effective, senior management need to be engaged and committed. Do they have the time or are they willing to give it? Who is responsible and accountable? Where does the cost sit: in marketing or do you have a separate cost centre/budget? Is it in competition with brand marketing for funds? Does it have a place in the strategic plan or is it just an aside, an add-on?

Communication. Altruism is great – but will your shareholders be so happy unless they see a benefit? So, effective communication is key to engagement. There is no need to hide your light under a bushel. Create the halo effect for shareholders, managers and staff and other stakeholders. Create a sense of pride for all stakeholders. However, remember, credibility will not come from spending N10 million on communicating an event worth just N1 million!

Measurement. How do you know your programme is meeting your corporate objectives? Marketing research tools will test some measures like spontaneous and prompted recall, share of mind, etc. For listed companies NSE performance will also be an indicator. Recruitment and retention of talent will reflect how respected your company has become. There are some genuine awards such as Social Enterprise Report and Awards (www.sera-ng.com) but many are spurious money-making ventures; possibly an opportunity for an LBS and BusinessDay collaboration? Finally, do not discount the impact of word of mouth/anecdotal feedback.

Integrity and interference. It is vital for credibility to avoid internal or external political or other interference. Is donating to a minister’s favourite charity credible CSR? Is “planning gain”, building something to achieve a state’s approval, a legitimate use of CSR? Beware of shareholders who want to hijack for their own interests? Does the CEO have a personal agenda such as political ambition or just ‘big-manism’? A borehole for the chairman’s village might be a good thing to do but it is not credible or sustainable programme in itself.

CSR overload. Remember, you can’t do everything! As your reputation grows you become a magnet for requests and proposals. Many of these will be legitimate and some will be heartbreaking stories that can tempt a CEO into “play God syndrome”. Trying to do too much can ‘blow your budget’ and alienate shareholders. There is safety in sticking to your policy and your budget.

So, having made my point that CSR as an industry is in danger of becoming superficial and losing credibility, the PR industry, which advises client companies, needs to be professional in its approach. While I hope that the content of this presentation will help, it is important to impart on our clients that if their core business is not run responsibly and sustainably, then ultimately no matter what grammar is published, their reputation is at risk.

There were strong contributions following my presentation from the discussants, Prof Sidi Osho of Premier Legacy Foundation and Ken Egbas of SERA and from the floor. Egbas reported that he had visited 610 Nigerian companies in the last few years for SERA and agreed that CSR was beginning to have a credibility issue. He questioned whether many CEOs supported programmes because they wanted to ‘feel good rather than do good’. He noted a trend to spend more on publicizing than actually doing. Ken also cited transparency and adequate documentation as an issue. According to FIRS research, companies spent some N30bn in 2013 on CSR but where were the evidence and the clarity? He felt that Nigerian CEOs were gradually becoming aware of the commercial and not just the social importance of building a reputation as a respected organization but still lagged behind the West. In 1999, according to research, US companies’ reputation was predominantly defined by their brand marketing but by 2013 American consumers defined a company by its behaviour, including attitude towards gender and racial equality, social responsibility, etc.

Prof Osho made several points about the credibility of CEOs and their need to walk the talk. She thought a closer link between foundations and their sponsors should be made with more clarity and documentation. Foundations should be named directly to create a direct link with their founder or sponsor. She found that some CEOs were difficult to engage with and urged greater use of collaboration between private companies and arms of government to create a kind of CSR Public Private Partnership. The latter points triggered some discussion. There was a general consensus that dealing with government agencies proved a problem because of corruption and lack of transparency. Often, private sector CSR is undertaking programmes that should be the responsibility of government, especially in health and education areas. While it was recognized companies have a particular responsibility when investing in developing economies, they cannot be expected to take over the duties of government. The better CEOs become over-burdened by requests and pleas and then are criticised when turning others down.

The general outcome of the discussion could be summarized in the need for increased accountability and documentation and CEO engagement for CSR to attain true credibility in Nigeria. With enough transparency and ‘naming and shaming’ the poor performers who hide their lack of activity or poor core behaviour behind glossy brochures, eventually Nigerian investors and consumers will start voting with their naira and becoming a respected company for ethical and responsible behaviour will reap its just rewards. As of now, we still have a long way to go!

 

Keith Richards