Skip links


The Public Relations of Being Responsible: CSR

Published on November 15, 2023, 3:40 p.m.
by Kat Weir.

In a world of increasing social awareness and activism, the role of businesses in society has evolved beyond simply generating profits. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become a central value for organizations, reflecting a broader commitment to make a positive impact on society.

One key aspect of CSR is when and how companies choose to speak out on social issues. Highlighting the significance of CSR and evaluating the opportune times for companies to express their viewpoints on vital social concerns are paramount in our modern

business landscape.

What is CSR?

Corporate social responsibility, often abbreviated as CSR, refers to an organization’s ethical and moral obligations to contribute to society beyond its financial interests. Dr. Karla Gower, director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, defined CSR as “entail[ing] a lot of different things. For me, I think of corporate social responsibility as an organization being a good corporate citizen.”

Companies that embrace CSR understand that they are not operating in isolation, and their actions can have a far-reaching impact on various stakeholders, including customers, employees, communities and the environment. CSR encompasses a wide range of practices, from philanthropy and sustainability efforts to responsible business practices and community engagement.

Photo by Adil via Adobe Stock

The evolution of CSR

CSR has come a long way since its inception. Initially, CSR was primarily seen as a way for a company to improve its public image and reputation. It was seen as a marketing tool rather than a genuine commitment to societal betterment. However, the concept of CSR has evolved over time, and it now represents a more profound, intrinsic responsibility.

Today, CSR is an integral part of many organizations’ strategic plans. It is not just about donating to charities; it’s about

integrating sustainable and ethical practices into the core of business operations.

Paul Argenti, professor at Dartmouth College, said, “In terms of advocacy, I think it’s important to advocate for things that are important to your business.” It includes efforts to minimize environmental impact, support employee well-being, promote diversity and inclusion, and engage with local communities. In this context, vocalizing thoughts on social issues becomes an essential element of a company’s CSR strategy.

When is the right time?

There are multiple factors to consider when it comes to a company publicly speaking out on a social issue.

“You have to make sure that whatever it is that you’re commenting on has something to do with your business,” Argenti said. “I’m pretty forgiving about something that doesn’t have to be directly related, but tangentially related to your business. It has to be something that you can do something about.” He added that there is no point of speaking out just to say something.

A company should speak out on social issues that align with its core values and mission. When an issue is in direct contrast to the company’s principles, remaining silent can be perceived as complicity.

When considering what to speak out on, Gower said, “I think we always need to come back to the corporate mission and that really guides people. When companies have a problem, they get away from that mission. They forget who they are, and they sort of take a stand on something that doesn’t really fit who they are.”

Speaking out sends a clear message about the organization’s commitment to its values, whether the message is accepted or not.

Photo by Семен Саливанчук via Adobe Stock

Companies should consider the impact of a social issue on their stakeholders, including customers, employees and the communities in which they operate. If an issue deeply affects these groups, taking a stance can build trust and strengthen relationships.

Incorporating employees, stakeholders and customers is important when promoting corporate social responsibility. Argenti said, “I don’t think you can be responsible without involving them.”

Companies need to speak on issues where they have expertise or a genuine commitment. Speaking thoughtfully is crucial because consumers can quickly detect inauthentic or opportunistic responses. Companies should avoid jumping on the bandwagon of trending issues without a sincere commitment.

Examples of CSR in action

There have been many instances when companies have spoken out on social issues, some successful and others not.

For example, CVS stopped selling cigarettes in its stores because the company wanted to advocate for living a healthier lifestyle. As a drug store, this decision aligned with its values. “They didn’t believe that they should be selling a product that wasn’t health based, and so they stopped,” said Gower.

Argenti noted, “A good example is when companies were dealing with the Ukraine [crisis] and pulled out for very good reasons. They were trying to protect the employees who were working in Ukraine. They were trying to protect their assets [such as] restaurants like McDonald’s, but they were also taking a stand against Russia, but they could do something about it [because] they had businesses there.”

An unsuccessful CSR response typically happens, according to Gower, when companies “try to sell themselves as being these great companies, that they’re taking a stand on certain issues, they believe in certain things and yet they’re not treating their employees the same way.”

An example of an unsuccessful company statement would be the 2004 Sam’s Club response to a scandal when employees were locked in the facilities after closing time and were unable to get out after one employee was injured. The company had preached to the public about the benefits and treatment it provided its employees and tried to cover up this instance.

Mona Williams, vice president of communications at Walmart (parent company of Sam’s Club) at the time, explained that the company employed lock-ins as a security measure to safeguard both its stores and employees in areas with high crime rates. She noted that facility fire doors were “always accessible for safety,” while the company’s fire escape policy discouraged employees from using emergency escape doors when a fire was not present.

The company argued that its policies were based on common sense and prioritized the safety of associates. However, other corporations such as Home Depot and Costco said the employee lock-in policy was “highly unusual” as well as being extremely outdated. After this instance, the policy was changed to make sure every overnight shift leader had a key in case of emergencies.

Staying responsible

Corporate social responsibility is not merely a buzzword — it’s a fundamental shift in how businesses perceive their societal role. Companies must recognize that their impact goes beyond their products and profits, and they should actively engage with and speak out on social issues that matter.

When done authentically, and in alignment with company values and stakeholders’ needs, speaking out can be a powerful tool for creating positive change in the world. As companies continue to evolve in their understanding of CSR, the importance of addressing social issues will only grow, making it an integral part of their ongoing commitment to societal betterment.

Return to top of page