Corporate citizenship and the strategic role of public relations
Corporate citizenship is one aspect of business that some brands are yet to optimally incorporate into their corporate culture. While some companies have built a reputation of a ‘good corporate citizen’ through their consistent social impact initiatives, others have inadvertently projected themselves as ‘the opposite’. Corporate citizenship typifies the practice whereby a company prioritises the interests of its operating society and feels obligated to improve it.
A good corporate citizen considers the needs, advances the interests and is sensitive to the challenges besetting its society. This social responsiveness boosts its profile and builds lasting brand associations. In this context, public relations is situated- the corporate citizenship function of a company is almost always domiciled within its PR arm. This stands to reason because the corporate citizenship of any organisation has a galvanic impact on its reputation.
Corporate citizenship and corporate social responsibility: Any difference?
Corporate citizenship is always interchanged with the term ‘corporate social responsibility’. One cannot say this is wrong, but the former is a ‘construct’ while the latter is a ‘concept’. Corporate citizenship describes an array of business-society relationships; the responsibilities and obligations which an organisation fulfils in relation to its society to achieve sustainable success for both the organisation and the society.
The Corporate Citizen Research Unit of the Deakin University in Australia defined corporate citizenship as “recognition that a business, corporation or business-like organisation, has social, cultural and environmental responsibilities to the community in which it seeks a licence to operate, as well as economic and financial ones to its shareholders or immediate stakeholders. Corporate citizenship involves an organisation coming to terms with the need for, often, radical internal and external changes, in order to better meet its responsibilities to all of its stakeholders (direct or indirect), in order to establish, and maintain, sustainable success for the organisation, and, as a result of that success, to achieve long term sustainable success for the community at large”.
Corporate social responsibility specifically refers to the initiatives embarked upon by an organisation to enhance society and the environment by way of corporate philanthropy, staff volunteering, scholarship, environmentalism, etc. Corporate citizenship is a broader term housing corporate social responsibility and other corporate functions. The corporate citizenship profile of any organisation is a function of its CSR investments.
Your role as a PR specialist
The public relations specialist, like I have accentuated repeatedly in my thought leadership series, should go beyond media relations and publicity. It is incumbent upon them to take charge of the corporate citizenship function of their organisation and drive its corporate social responsibility programmes. Every organisation should have a robust yearly corporate citizenship plan detailing all the objectives, impact areas, strategy for execution, budget, and measurement approach. This plan should be a fundamental part of your overall public relations activities for the year and must be carefully thought out.
Your corporate citizenship endeavours should be aligned with your organisation’s business model and reflect value for your stakeholders. An effective corporate citizenship plan is one that recounts a compelling story about the brand, endears the stakeholders, and establishes the brand as a socially sensitive one, not just a profiteering entity.
The public relations specialist has to work closely with Senior Management to agree on crucial areas of CSR investment. But more importantly, the specialist has the strategic role of advising Management on the best CSR programmes that bolster the corporate citizenship standing of the organisation. CSR should not be a nice-to-have, but a well-intentioned effort that truly strengthens the ties between an organisation and its stakeholders, especially its community.
Kellie McElhaney, Director at the Centre for Responsible Business, states: “CSR can be both a risk mitigation strategy and an opportunity-seeking strategy, and leaders should look for the ‘sweet spot’ within their organisations—that is, the intersection between business and social/environmental returns”. Your role as the PR professional is to locate this ‘sweet spot’ and leverage it. Ensure that your organisation makes the most befitting CSR investments, with clearly defined objectives. And every dollar must be accounted for as the CSR budget management falls within your ambit.
Building a successful CSR programme
Build your CSR strategy around the strengths or competencies of your organisation. If your organisation has developed expertise in a given area, it is advisable to focus your CSR initiatives on such an area or a sector that naturally aligns with your competencies. For example, it is common to see aviation brands invest in aviation academies through funding or volunteering technical personnel as instructors. Similarly, a health services outfit will typically consider CSR activities in its sector, such as the provision of free medical check-ups and consultation to the host community. The point here is that your CSR should derive from your organisation’s speciality, in line with prevailing community needs. That alignment is expedient.
Again, invest in causes that matter to your community. What are the issues or challenges facing them? Focus on the issues they care about, and you wll be fostering more loyalty to your brand, for customers are more favourably disposed to brands perceived to be supportive of causes that matter to them while boycotting brands that demonstrate social irresponsibility. You can recall that in 2019, Air Peace deployed one of its jumbo Boeing 777s to freely airlift over 500 Nigerians from South Africa amidst xenophobic onslaughts. The airline responded to the exploding issue by coming to the rescue of Nigerians, and the PR boons from that CSR have been enduring- the airline’s market share increased and many people fly Air Peace today because of that evacuation flight. This Air Peace case is supported by a 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study, which discovered that 87% of American customers will purchase a product because a company stood up for an issue they cared about and 76% will boycott a company’s products or services if it supported an issue averse to their beliefs.
It is also advised to develop CSR interests that inspire feelings of pride in the workforce. Employees are proud of companies that are significantly making a positive impact on their community. You can also devise a programme that encourages staff volunteering in community work. This breeds healthy staff engagement and gives them a sense of making an impact in their community. Alison DaSilva, former Executive VP of CSR Strategy at Cone Communications, asserts: “Being a good employer has always served companies well in terms of recruitment and retention, now those practices can also yield broader positive business benefits”.
When done right, CSR programmes have a lot of payoffs for both the organisation and the community. They increase the social value and capital of the brand while also addressing critical issues inherent in the community. However, while you focus on impacting the external publics in your CSR programmes, do not downplay getting the internal publics involved and operating in a way that promotes their interests, as this is also a component of corporate citizenship. Apart from corporate philanthropy, environmental commitments, staff volunteering, scholarship, the building of schools and clinics, free and subsidised medicare, etc, advise your Management on advocating for issues that the community cares about, like the Black Lives Matter and ENDSARS campaigns, diversity-based recruitment, being a good employer, offering services/products that are not noxious to the customers, and ensuring that your company’s operations do not negatively affect the environment (by 2030, Apple will be making its devices and supply chain carbon neutral).
Olisa, a Strategic Communications Consultant, writes from Lagos