Conversations at the Intersection of PR, Traditional & New Media

CSR Communications – the Next Big Opportunity

csrThe New Companies Bill was passed in Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament) on 8th August, 2013, making it mandatory for profit making companies to contribute 2% of the profit after tax (PAT) of preceding three years towards Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha) had cleared the bill on 18th December 2012. The bill will now go for presidential assent. Once the President of India clears the bill, India will possibly become the first country to have CSR spending through a statutory provision.

This new proposed legislation has created a flutter within the Indian PR sector, which sees it as the next big opportunity. Agencies are busy either upgrading their service offerings with special capabilities to manage the CSR communications or setting up new verticals. For example, Concept PR, recently announced the launch of ‘Community Relations,’ a separate practice dedicated to CSR. Given this scenario, I thought we need to discuss this topic in detail, hence approached few industry leaders to get some direction and perspective on this new trend/opportunity.

We have always been communicating our clients’ CSR activities through our regular PR approach and journalists used to see our pitches with lot of cynicism, but probably with the changed scenario even media will be now more vigilant on CSR initiatives of corporates. Let’s hear from the industry stalwarts themselves on their views about this upcoming opportunity:

Launching a special new vertical focused on CSR communications, BN Kumar, Executive Director, Concept PR, says that his firm has been offering client’s advice on communicating CSR initiatives however now with the entire new division they will advise clients on 360-degree approach on CSR.

Nikhil Dey, President – PR, Genesis Burson-Marsteller, says, “We have a dedicated CSR team that has been in existence for over 3 years now, who provide services ranging from primary needs assessment to developing, executing, managing and reporting results for programmes that are a combination of community interventions as well as broader cause-based advocacy initiatives. We believe it is a huge differentiator for us, as we have been committed to this area of specialisation much before this bill has put a spotlight on CSR.”

Affirming Nikhil’s views, Jaideep Shergill, CEO, MSL Group India, says, “We have a vertical named PurPle that advises clients on CSR innovation, community objectives and programmes. At its core is our belief that the people who make up corporations no longer want to say what they do, but why they do it. Firms that concentrate on benefiting the community attract the best talent and build the best brands.”

Though many large corporates have been contributing substantial amounts towards community development, however very few focus on communicating the same to their stakeholders effectively.

Nikhil, opines, “With this mandate coming in, Indian PR consultancies will need to gear up to help their clients achieve their CSR goals by aligning community and other stakeholder engagements with the company’s business objective. This will require a completely different skill set and specialists who understand the ecosystem, can deliver meaningful counsel and have the capacity to execute programs, monitor them and report back in the form of an annual CSR report. Therefore while it is a huge opportunity, it is in equal measure a huge responsibility that rests on the shoulders of PR consultancies to be able to walk the talk and not just do the ‘last mile’ talking.”

While on the other hand Jaideep had a different point of view, he says, “While I believe that businesses should focus on the communities in which they operate, I’m against mandated requirement. CSR, by its very nature, comes from belief and a sense of duty. It’s not something you can enforce. In fact, this part of the law may backfire, with many firms simply throwing money at a problem without careful thought or a plan to achieve specific objectives. Some businesses might even resent being forced to devote revenues to CSR, turning them off the concept forever.

As CSR is becoming increasingly important for clients and PR agencies are building the skills required for it. However, it’s only the corporations that are serious about causes – and who voluntarily apply their energy to them – seek our advice. Those forced to implement CSR programmes wouldn’t approach us.”

BN Kumar adds that, “This is not going to be just another expense or a matter of routine communication exercise. Companies will have to take it very seriously and we are happy that we have geared up to meet the new challenge.”

So what does all this mean to us, will it open up new job opportunities? Will this mean that we will have to add on new skills to effectively communicate and offer a holistic approach to CSR?

Experts’ state that with the demand for specialized CSR communications is increasing, corporates will want to have on their team (inhouse/external), communicators who understand community relations, people who have worked with NGOs in the past or have been a part of a corporate sustainability team within large corporate houses.

However Jaideep is of the opinion that “Any well-thought-out CSR programme is ‘PR-able’. However, it would be in bad taste to tom-tom such work. A well-implemented, well-meaning effort organically leads to great PR. Our job would be to ensure that there is robust, regular communication with the community in question and to showcase the human stories that result from the CSR programme. The focus throughout must be on the cause rather than the client.” Which means even a clear understanding of the principals of PR should help, but an experience of CSR communications will be an added advantage. To get that experience, you need not wait for your agency or your company to offer you an opportunity to work on a CSR mandate; you can even approach an NGO and offer your expertise voluntarily as well. This will not only help them but also yourself in the long-term.

In this scenario, how should corporates look at the changed landscape, what are the changes they need to bring in their approach of driving CSR campaigns, what are the pitfalls they need to be aware about?

Nikhil, strongly feels that, “CSR has been a part of the Indian business culture since the early days of industry. The ideal state to reach would be when corporate houses operate with a social conscience that is an inherent part of their business strategies. One advice we offer our clients is that CSR communication should never be “pushed” for media to report. Employee engagement is another huge area that PR can play a role by ensuring that there is strong employee involvement and pride in the CSR initiative of a company. Another point we make to clients is to consider the impact of disengagement from a cause. If for some reason there is a rethink on a CSR program mid-way there is irreparable damage that can be done to reputation as well as to stakeholder trust.”

But the biggest question that props out whenever you speak about CSR PR is that, Does CSR needs PR at all?

Jaideep, says, “Like other activities of an organisation, CSR also requires reaching out to influencers, decision-makers and other stakeholders, including employees. Communication is an important part of any CSR activity.”

While Nikhil is of the opinion that, “Action must precede communication. Once a company has done a body of work that has shown results over a sustained period of time, it automatically gets recognised for its efforts. So the best PR approach for CSR is to focus on doing good work, credit for it will follow.”

With this, I open the floor to all our forum experts to share their views on the topic. Your views only can truly complete this piece in all sense. Please comment here or on my blog or tweet @vikramkharvi


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Categorised in: Public Relations, Vikypedia Exclusives

11 Responses »

  1. very informative and a an excellent piece written by you…..

  2. PR professionals are indeed fortunate that CSR has come to occupy centre-stage in corporate governance — in Public, Public and Other Sectors. CSR’s primary aim is to help improve quality of life in all areas of human existence especially for those in distress and/or in need. this is a missionary work and requires a burning fire among those incharge of CSR activity to come out of their ivory shells and airconditioned rooms, go over to the open, identify areas where such activities need to be launched and carried to the finale till the objective is reached.

    Surely, such activities speak high of the Organisations on the aspect of their Social Responsibilty other than their core responsibilities of manufacturing, marketing, selling and making profits. For PR professionals this is a subject on which they should keep collecting information, especially interviews with beneficiaries and also taking media persons to the site(s) to let them the ‘feel’ and write in their despatches. through these writings, image-building of the organisation is bound to follow. that is one of the primary objective of PR.

    In the 2nd and Enlarged edition of my book THE CHALLENGE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS (just released through display in Delhi Book Fair), i have purposely included a chapter on PR and CSR. this is just by way of information-sharing with my PR friends.

  3. Thanks Vikram, very interesting. However I´d like to highlight that CSR communication is not only talking about CSR but rather an integrative part of CSR.

  4. I would be very interested to hear about the types of initiatives likely to be funded from the 2% CSR spend by major corporates; and also to know how far down the company scale the new legislation will apply. For instance, would small family businesses, freelances and sole practitioners be expected to contribute in this way?

  5. Not only will it push corporates to focus on CSR activities in a structured way, this will also bring in a sense of responsibility towards the society. It is too early to fathom the outcome but nevertheless a good start

  6. Recently I participated in a group discussion on Linkedin around definition of CSR. Over a period of six months the topic attracted good response delivering over 350 definitions from around the world. So you can see there is a total confusion on this new emerging service. To see it as a corporate communication can be misleading. To see it as PR tool can be highly misleading. To see this in the confines of communication itself can be a misconception. First and foremost it should be seen with a sense of social sensitivity. The starting point would be to bring this sensitivity to the companies, help build in the same in the corporate philosophy and then proceed to identify areas of opportunities for developing a CSR program.

  7. A really interesting development, Vikram, thanks for posting it. What will be interesting, I would think, will be how to achieve differentiation once something that used to be a differentiator becomes a given. With what I see in internal communications, I’m sure someone will try to take employee engagement up even further with internal CSR innovation. But innovation can just be repackaging, and I don’t think the cynical press will — or should — abandon their valuable scrutiny

  8. The topic you chose to write for this Tuesday was most appropriate. Though I always wanted to know about this new vertical – CSR PR, but then, never felt like treading further for my inquest due to the stiff nose of the people handling it.
    This article has enlightened me all I needed to know and therefore, must admit you are the best and a genius. Last but not the least, like many other members, I am also a silent reader of this Forum which is increasingly turning up into an addiction with interesting debates on various issues by luminaries of the industry!

  9. Personally, I believe CSR should be voluntary and experienced/ seen not spoken to or formally communicated to the rest of the world. For that reason, I dont completely endorse the CSR bill either. (This sounds suspiciously similar to the RTE which was the government’s way of washing their hands off children’s education. With CSR Bill they are washing their hands off development). The bill is likely to create a channel for money laundering for corporates, who are increasingly coming under the spotlight for a range of irregularities. If the PR community needs to make use of this Act, it must do so by focusing on transparency and outcomes of CSR in its messaging and not harping on “How much money was spent” and “How many poor disadvantaged people were helped”.

    Calling upon journalists to “cover” this information (through press releases and or events) is downright damaging because CSR – at its core – is about influencing like minded people to come together for a cause, work on it and make a difference. Those like minded people are employees of corporations (primarily) and hence it is important that companies spread internal awareness of their CSR efforts. In the external world, there are better ways to draw people to your cause than seeking mainstream media. Vedanta is a classic example of PR not going down well with the media or the public.

  10. The bigger challenge is for the companies to prioritise how and where to commit the spends in line with their stated CSR goals( if there is a documented one ). And if and when they do spend on a good cause and impact some part of society its fair if they also make the right stakeholders aware of their intent and commitment initially and its measurable impact over time .

    • Dear Dinesh,As mentioned in the post there are three major criretia, turnover above Rs 1000 crores, Networth above Rs 500 crores and net profit above Rs 5 crores. If a corporate qualifies under anyone of htese then CSR provisions becomes mandatory. The law covers any company which qualifies under above criretia thus covering all companies whether proviate or otherwise. rgdssubhash mittal

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Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed by me in this blog are my personal views and do not represent the views of my employer or the organizations I have been associated with. I believe in the principle of sharing information. Feel free to link to any of the posts in this blog.
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