The paradox of communicating CSR: Reality check

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

Many companies try to improve their image by communicating their involvement in socially responsible activities. This often arouses scepticism rather than achieving the intended goal. Greta Thunberg conveyed it most eloquently: “Blah, blah, blah”. In this series we explore ways to successfully manage the predicament.

There is a difficult challenge that companies face when trying to communicate their corporate social responsibility (CSR): the lack of trust.

All too often, stakeholder scepticism is revealed in responses that point to window dressing, or a publicity stunt, or a marketing ploy, or greenwashing.

The reaction highlights an underlying tension.  In an effort not only to look like better citizens, but to become one, companies must deal with a paradox: the more they communicate what they are doing, the higher is the risk that it will be seen as nothing more than corporate spin.

The perceived discrepancy between rhetoric and business practice is something FleishmanHillard has been studying for nearly a decade and calls the “Authenticity Gap“. The Gap accounts for much of the widespread lack of credibility around CSR.  FleishmanHillard’s latest findings show how perceived hypocrisy negatively affects attitudes towards businesses.

Yet, companies are being asked to partner with governments and advocacy groups to solve the world’s pressing problems.  Consider the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), for example.

These conflicting ideas about the role of business pose a dilemma.  In the context of mistrust, will meeting the demand for communication of prosocial activities help or backfire?  Especially when interested parties today have almost instant access to information disseminated by or relating to the company.

Consequently, businesses must approach the communication of corporate responsibility with the same care and attention with which they face any other management task.  This means adopting a range of media and reporting practices that increase the potential for improving reputation, and therefore trust.

Our next post “Time to refocus” will take a short definitional excursion to introduce the core idea behind the most successful approaches.


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.