Communicating corporate social responsibility: Corporate responsibility as a negotiation between organisation and stakeholders

Richard Costa, Director and Head of Corporate Reporting at Ensemble Studio

There is a great deal of ambiguity that shrouds the concept of corporate responsibility.

Not only is there a lack of consensus as to what it actually means, more than ever companies are also expected to communicate theirs. It’s a riddle wrapping an enigma. How should corporations approach communicating corporate responsibility?

In the third post, ‘Corporate responsibility as a strategic activity‘, we examined the idea of corporate responsibility, including its communication, as strategic business activity. We will now conclude this series by considering an alternative approach.

Corporate responsibility as negotiation

Several corporations readily admit that they see corporate responsibility primarily as a vehicle to enhance or protect their reputation.

For that reason, some would argue against placing corporate responsibility activities in the communications department of an organisation: the basic idea is that businesses should concentrate on solving their tasks in a responsible manner.

To communicate about corporate responsibility (CR) is suspect because it serves corporate self-interest. Put simply, mix CR with PR and you breed scepticism.

There are good reasons, both of an ethical and pragmatic nature, for choosing a minimalist approach to reporting corporate responsibility. And yet, some form of communication cannot be avoided, especially when silence on the matter itself sends a strong message.

The crux is that it may no longer be sufficient for organisations to merely report their corporate responsibility activities to stakeholders. Instead, organisations must incorporate stakeholders into their corporate responsibility process and engage in dialogue that creates a shared strategic understanding of the most appropriate activities to undertake.

Like ‘corporate responsibility’, the term ‘stakeholder’ is quite ambiguous, with no clear guidelines as to who can be considered a stakeholder and which stakeholders should be given more importance.

At a practical level, not all stakeholders attach the same significance to the same activities.  Furthermore, stakeholder expectations can change across time, take for example before and after the pandemic.

This suggests that corporate responsibility communication needs to be targeted to specific stakeholders and should be re-evaluated continually to ensure their expectations continue to be met.

Without providing a forum that allows open communication with stakeholders, the result can be corporate monologues that do little to demonstrate the transparency or accountability of the organisation.

Richard Costa works in partnership with clients to develop comprehensive corporate communications solutions. He oversees the communication strategy, delivery and service quality of numerous corporate reports. Get in touch to talk about how he can help your organisation communicate corporate responsibility.

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