Between brands who use misleading ecological or social claims in their campaigns and those who decide not to communicate at all, there is a balance to find. How can companies communicate their social responsibility commitments in a relevant and effective way? What are the trends for 2014 and the years to come? 30 French experts answered.
French regulations are forcing companies to publish more and more information on the social and environmental impacts of their activities and their social commitments (Article 225 of the Grenelle II law). For their part, citizens are disillusioned about the brands’ CSR discourses and do not hesitate to criticize, especially on social networks. And the "police of greenwashing" are watching and denouncing any companies that use misleading ecological or social claims.
In this context, how can companies communicate their commitments to social responsibility in a relevant and effective way? What are the trends for 2014 and the years to come? At the end of 2013, at the request of the consultancy Sircome, 30 French experts in corporate social responsibility communications and sustainability marketing shared their visions and key points. There are four main results.
Openness and humility facing the complexity of CSR issues
CSR topics are particularly complex: multiple and overlapping environmental and social impacts, sharp scientific methods and tools to evaluate, multiplicity of labels and standards, etc. Moreover, these issues have been recently and not thoroughly addressed in marketing and communication training programs. A first step is therefore to raise expertise in this field.
Sustainability is a journey that raises many questions and often challenges conventional wisdom within the company. To be successful and create values, internal stakeholders (directors, managers, employees) and external stakeholders (suppliers, customers, NGOs) have to be involved, first to better understand their perceptions and expectations.
In France, a relevant example is given by Orange, the telecommunications operator, which leads an active policy of listening to its stakeholders. Thus, a webpage allows each person to discover the twelve areas of the group CSR activities and select the three of greatest importance.
Bringing the actors together around commitments linked to the business strategy
Ten years ago, creating a Sustainable Development Department was seen as a breakthrough. Today, experts note that the stakes are sometimes confined to that direction, instead of being spread across the entire company. And sustainable development is too often seen as a constraint rather than as a source of innovation and wealth.
Above all, companies must be deeply engaged in identifying and reducing their environmental and social impacts, in a coherent way with the overall strategy and in response to the stakeholders’ concerns. These commitments must be linked to products and services. Mobilizing employees is key to success.
Les 2 vaches (Stonyfield Farm / Danone) is an interesting example in this regard. Marketing is at the service of the company’s "mission": Move society towards a more transparent food system, with more meaning and fun. Employees deploy their energy and skills to convince all the actors in the chain to engage in organic: farmers and consumers of course, but also bankers, agricultural colleges, distributors, etc (see our interview of Les 2 vaches’ CEO — in French).
A communication strategy and resources in line with digital risks and uses
Web 2.0 tools are transforming society. French consumers seek information about products and services, exchange freely their views and experiences and sometimes try to put pressure on companies (via online petitions, for example). New forms of consumption (sharing, exchange, loan, repair, direct sales, bundling) and innovation (co-design, co-production, open innovation) are growing.
Certainly, reputational risks are increasing, but also opportunities! Companies can provide the means to reduce the first and seize the second. Training marketing and communications teams to these (r)evolutions seems essential. Well-supported employees can also become ambassadors of the company’s CSR strategy. Digital tools are a great way to enter into conversation with influencers and consumers to listen to their questions and answer in real time, if possible.
Thus, the banking group BNP Paribas opened in 2013 a forum on its website and initiated the conversation on Twitter around the hashtag #banqueresponsable (sustainablebanking). During several months, users were able to freely express their ideas and opinions. A community manager, expert in the company’s CSR policy, answered them with great responsiveness.
Towards a CSR communications platform, delivering honest, varied and challenging discourses
Discourses about the company’s commitments must be sincere and present actions whose effects are evaluated. They should also highlight the obstacles and inevitable progress margins. Speech alone is not enough, even sitting on evidence such as labels: stakeholders require more information on practical operations connected to the products’ quality.
Communication practitioners often misjudge campaigns about sustainability: binding, boring, sanctimonious, not very "sexy" ... They are wrong. As highlighted by several experts, communicating on sustainability issues can be innovative, creative and motivating. The rationality of the CSR discourse must be accompanied by relationship, emotion and projection in a more desirable and sustainable future.
Finally, many experts think the CSR report has become a "monster," primarily intended for extra-financial rating agencies. But it is expected to merge with the annual report. Some experts also invite companies to establish a communications platform for bringing CSR results, commitments and societal goals of the company to the attention of the parties involved, in forms and through appropriate channels, throughout the year.
For example, the Bel Group (The Laughing Cow, Kiri, Leerdammer, Boursin) has posted on its website several educational videos. In a simple and visual way, they explain what CSR is and the various commitments of the group. Hence, information is accessible to all those who know nothing about CSR (that is to say, the majority of users) and also to those who will never make the effort to read written content on the subject (but for whom video may be of interest). More detailed content is available under the videos for those wishing to deepen the subject, and experts are invited to consult the CSR report.
Com-rse.fr: a website to deepen the reflection
For those who wish to go further, I invite you to join the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #ComRSE and visit http://www.com-rse.fr/ (in French). You will find all the experts’ advice, detailed analysis, several examples, a series of temporal references, a glossary and a selection of resources (books, guides or websites) for further reflection and action on the challenges of CSR communications.