We have come a long way. Companies are more than ever engaging in sustainable and responsible practices. And positioning themselves as changemakers – proving that profit with purpose has the power to change the world.

Whether it is working to reduce their carbon footprint, advocating for policy changes or supporting social causes financially, companies are increasingly recognising their crucial role in solving contemporary challenges, and taking action. Our recent study shows that around 80% of companies believe they have a role to play in responding to the environmental and social emergency we are living in. Slowly, companies are going beyond mere financial philanthropy and reaching a greater level of engagement, often involving their stakeholders in the process. 

From moral recognition to talent retention, the undeniable perks of commitment – together with the risks of inaction – are encouraging companies to do more and better and place CSR at the top rather than on the side of their agenda.

Communicating CSR: fear and hesitation

Yes, more and more companies are doing good. And yet, there is a great imbalance between what committed companies are doing and what they are saying. Communication is a controversial, touchy and often scary topic when it comes to CSR actions. Companies want their stakeholders to be aware of the great things they are doing. But they are hesitant about communicating their efforts fearing criticism. 

Do we sound authentic enough? Did we join the movement too late? Are we doing enough to talk about it? Will we be called out and accused of greenwashing? Cold sweats are usual when posting on Linkedin about CSR. To post or not to post? That is the question. 

Being scared of communicating on one’s company’s CSR is not without rhyme or reason. Expectations are higher than ever. And so is scrutiny. Consumers are mistrusting. NGOs are campaigning. The media is watching. And rightly so.

The "washing" trap

Stakeholder pressure and competitive advantage are driving companies to engage and show that they are doing their bit. But some often pledge more than they do, mislead, or omit flaws at the risk of falling into the trap of greenwashing – but also social, rainbow or blue washing. 

🟩 Greenwashing needs no introduction. Everyday a different company is being called out for greenwashing their activity. Greenwashing is about portraying one’s company as environmentally-friendly or conscious to seduce stakeholders, although it is not or insufficiently so. Take Qatar Airways for instance. Their Earth Day post misleadingly suggests that flying with Qatar Airways is green or environmentally sustainable when in fact the aviation industry is one of the most polluting. Sometimes the strategy behind some companies’ CSR communications is far from clear. 

👐 Social washing is the human rights version of greenwashing. It happens when companies provide misleading information about their social or ethical consciousness – for instance, labour and human rights, gender equality, modern day slavery and more. Big companies such as Nike or Zara have been recently called out for their implication in the perpetuation of human rights violations inflicted on the Uyghur community in the Xinjiang region of north-western China. 

🌈 Rainbow-washing is when companies portray themselves as LGBTQIA+ friendly and progressive institutions to gain sympathy although they do not promote any concrete actions to fight workplace discrimination or support the community beyond, for instance, putting up a rainbow flag during Pride Month. 

🟦 Blue-washing is UN-related. In 2015, the UN defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from fighting poverty and hunger to promoting clean energy, to be achieved by 2030. Companies are often listing how their activity contributes to SDGs to inscribe themselves in a global and legitimate sustainable effort. But many do not actively implement SDGs with purpose and intention – greatly decreasing the credibility of the goals over time. 

 Ultimately, any kind of washing generates general confusion over what is true or false commitment. And is detrimental to companies that are genuinely committed to CSR who find themselves in tricky communication positions. Worst comes to worst, the feeling that scrutiny is so prevalent can even lead to the conclusion that it is pointless to engage in CSR actions.

Staying silent is not an option

Given the frequency with which CSR claims are debunked, scrutiny is inevitable. Yet staying silent is not an option. Communication on CSR is expected as much as commitment itself. Doing good and not talking about it is missing out on the opportunity to not only consolidate stakeholders’ trust and loyalty but to inspire other companies to engage as well. Stakeholders want to know. Without a strong CSR communication strategy, no one really knows if your company is on the right path or perpetuating harmful practices.

6 tips to build a confident CSR communication

1. Be authentic

Although the term might irritate some by its clear overuse, nothing beats authenticity. Be honest and not too self-glorifying. What you are doing is great, but place yourself in the bigger picture. Focus on the CSR issues your company is addressing and show that you deeply understand what you are dealing with and what needs to be done. .

2. Be transparent

Don’t lie or omit obvious flaws. Resist stretching the truth to fit your stakeholders’ expectations. Nobody is perfect from the start. Admit to being a work in progress. Share your strengths as well as your lessons learnt. Candor is highly valued and can help stakeholders become your advocates.

3. Make it simple

Complicated words are often off-putting. The more complicated your communication is, the less people will be willing to listen and trust. Not everyone is a sustainability expert. Break sustainability language down to make it accessible to everyone. And take off your “corporate-hat” to give a human voice to human issues.

4. Involve your employees

Employees can be your best CSR ambassadors. Involve them in the CSR decision-making process. For instance, allow them to have a say in the projects your company will support. By co-constructing CSR programs, they will be more likely to feel pride for their company’s engagement and spread the word.

5. Be consistent

CSR is an ongoing, ever-evolving process. Too much or too little CSR communication can trigger skepticism. Communicate regularly on updates and results. Make it an organic part of both your business and communication so that the momentum around your commitment never fades.

6. Rely on data

We can talk all we want but if there is no evidence to back up what we say there is little chance people will believe us. Measure all the good you do. Regularly collect and share both quantitative and qualitative data to back up your CSR story and promises. The more tangible your CSR actions, the more trustworthy you are.

If communicating on your CSR actions causes you anxiety, it is, believe it or not, a good thing. It means that you are asking yourself the right questions. Convey this awareness in your communication. Harness your fear and self-doubt and turn it into your best ally. You are doing great or at least trying. Let the others know!

Picture by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels