Finding What Matters in CSR: A Long Way From Milton Friedman

In some corners of the corporate world, Milton Friedman’s declaration that corporate social responsibility is mere “hypocritical window-dressing” still echoes.

But TIME, by way of Knowledge@Wharton, makes the case for why companies can no longer afford to ignore corporate social responsibility.

Rightly, the article argues for just how mature the concept of CSR has become in the four decades since Friedman’s theory.

Of course, the charge is often leveled that CSR is nothing more than slick PR designed not to make a difference but to appease advocacy groups or cynically lure in well-meaning customers. While this is sometimes the case (and when it is, it is often exposed as such), counselors in our business know that any meaningful CSR strategy cannot reside in the marketing function.

Can we shape and tell the story? Of course.  We can also serve as a kind of conscience, a forceful voice that advocates that our clients’ corporate behavior and character match its words. But for the best expression of CSR, for it to both serve society and business strategy, it must be part of the culture, the DNA.

In some ways, as the article notes, the economic crisis of recent years has shown companies that CSR needs to be more tightly knit to business goals. Grand but superfluous gestures and big check- writing declined as budgets shrank. To receive funding in these belt-tightening times, CSR efforts today need a sharper business rationale that can persuade the CEO and CFO, not just the CMO. That’s a good thing.

And a, if not the, driving force for the growth of CSR is that consumer demand is destiny. As consumers become more socially-minded, and an avalanche of information is more accessible and shareable, we start asking more questions. How is this product made? Who makes it and how are they treated? What do they do to lessen the environmental impact? Is this a well-managed, properly governed company that will stay out of trouble?

Companies then have not just permission but an urgent need to figure out what is most relevant to their customer base and what kinds of responsibility initiatives will resonate most clearly with them. What do they care about and, once identified, what is in the company’s power to change for the better?

That’s where marketing and communications professional have the biggest chance to influence CSR – helping identify the things that are most relevant to the audience. Supporting the arts, for example, is certainly a worthy thing to do, but it may not enhance reputation among your audiences in a way that gets them to act – buy, recommend, share, engage. You may be missing something your audience really expects from your CSR.

About Mike Sacks

I'm a vice president in Emanate's New York office, and the editor-in-chief of The Emanation blog. I'll write about corporate reputation, corporate responsibility, crisis & issues management, and reference the occasional rap lyric. Any feedback on the blog? Please write me at michael.sacks@emanatepr.com.
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