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Does your company "do good"?

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, describes activities that help firms connect with or give back to their communities. CSR can range from charitable programs and community service to environmental-impact awareness.

While CSR activities have long been part of the business fabric, companies have wrangled with the best approach for communicating these efforts.

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To some, making the public aware of charitable work is an excellent way to extend visibility and create goodwill for a company. However, to others CSR and PR should be kept separate to avoid the perception that a business is engaged in such activities for only self-serving purposes. It's essential to understand the latest trends and regulations that companies now must consider as they strategize about their CSR activities.

Why bring attention to "non-profit" work?

The rise toward greater transparency has affected all aspects of how companies are expected to communicate to their public. Investors, employees, customers, stakeholders and the media are all seeking more information on the companies with which they're directly involved or have interactions.

This focus on disclosure most often involves business activities and financial performance, but to many - especially those in the local community - the degree to which a company gives back to the greater good can be a deciding factor in how that business is perceived. Given this reality, one could argue that companies that fail to communicate their CSR work could be doing themselves more harm than good.

Whether a company is a global behemoth or a mom-and-pop, the value of communicating one's hidden assets cannot be understated. In many cases, the value of a business is expressed as much by how it treats its employees, the programs it has for environmental sustainability or its charitable associations as it is its revenue or sales projections. Companies that are looking to gain an edge on the competition can benefit from making such hidden assets more widely visible.

Tools and tactics to communicate CSR

The press release remains an effective way to communicate CSR initiatives and milestones, especially when companies make a fundamental change to the way they do business or address community concerns. Companies that make an effort to address social inequities and obstacles interest the media. A news story detailing such initiatives can create a great deal of social capital in the minds of consumers.

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But it's not necessary to rely solely on traditional marketing to communicate CSR causes. Some companies use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to communicate their CSR activities in real time as well as to garner feedback from the online community. Tweeting during a community cleanup or posting a status update heralding an upcoming food drive is a simple and effective way to communicate a company's CSR initiatives.

Lastly, many companies are now building CSR-focused pages on their corporate websites where they are able to post press releases, news articles and even create interactive "calls to action" that highlight CSR programs and encourage engagement among all interested parties. Many companies are turning to outside resources to help keep consumers informed about their CSR practices.

CSR's shining stars

Some companies are successful at communicating their CSR activities by marketing a socially responsible service or product. Zipcar, for example, uses its website to promote the company's positive impact on the environment as well as its cost savings to drivers. Zipcar's mission to reduce dependence on personally owned vehicles resonates with socially minded, pragmatic consumers looking to cut pollution and lessen the consumption of oil. It's estimated that each Zipcar takes 15 to 20 personal vehicles off the road.

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Ben & Jerry's earned a reputation for incorporating socially responsible and sustainable practices directly into their business model. When Ben & Jerry's pledged only to use growth-hormone-free milk in their products, they paved the way for others to follow suit. The company's pledge to use hormone-free milk in their products and their strong support of family dairy farms garnered excellent media coverage both locally and nationally and cemented their reputation as a socially responsible business leader.

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Starbucks is another example of a company that leads the way in showcasing its CSR efforts. The website includes a full "responsibility" page that features updated CSR initiatives in community, environment, ethical sourcing, wellness and diversity. The responsibility page includes embedded video content for each area of CSR concentration, among them an extended clip about how the company spearheaded a grassroots effort to aid the city of New Orleans post-Katrina. There's even a featured post each month written by a Starbucks employee detailing their personal social responsibility goals.

CSR activities worth pursuing and promoting

Most people associate charitable work, like fundraisers, volunteer programs and sponsorships, with CSR. All of these activities are suitable for promotion, not only for added visibility, but also for increasing participation in the events themselves.

But charitable work is just one element of CSR. Environmental sustainability, public education and employee safety all fall under the umbrella of CSR and should be incorporated into a company's overall communication effort.

Tips to gain more visibility for CSR efforts

* Build exposure into your website. In order to demonstrate an authentic commitment, it's important to embed pieces of CSR stories within each page as well as to have a dedicated page within the site that details CSR efforts.

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* Use social media. This will enable companies to better understand the concerns of their communities and direct their CSR efforts to address those concerns. Companies that are in touch with their communities and actively assist or lead efforts to better them (globally or locally) can use social media to organize and enlist others in their cause. This grassroots action can build supporters who take it upon themselves to help communicate the company's efforts.

* Tap employees. Often employees are just as powerful as consumers in getting the word out about a company's business practices. Encourage your employees to engage in the company's CSR efforts. They'll feel good doing it and will likely tell others about it.

Rachel Meranus is's PR columnist and vice president, public relations at PR Newswire. Get more information about PR Newswire and public relations with their PR Toolkit for small businesses.

Copyright © 2010 Entrepreneur Media Inc. All rights reserved

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