Promoting That CSR Project: The Rights, Wrongs, And Pitfalls

It seems like every company in the world is doing something to give back and is eager to tell you about it. But are they too eager? Does trumpeting your own good deeds negate them?

Promoting That CSR Project: The Rights, Wrongs, And Pitfalls
Bono’s ad for Louis Vuitton’s Core Values campaign: “The idea of luxury product [maker] doing significant good was met with lot of skepticism.”

So: A couple of weeks ago, we get a call from a PR firm. Would you be interested in speaking to Mr. CEO (there’s no point naming him, but he’s real) about this fantastic, world-changing corporate social responsibility initiative? Okay, we said.


The call comes, and it turns out to be, well, less than we hoped. The CEO comes across as self-serving, and ever so slightly smarmy (for our tastes). And the initiative seems a bit weak, if we’re being honest, despite the miles of press it’s already received.

Never mind. But it got us thinking: Is it wrong to promote a CSR project? Should companies just get on with it, quietly without taking credit? Can marketing how good you are backfire? What are the best ways to do it?

Below are responses from three experts: an academic, a consultant, and a PR executive. But we’re also really interested in what readers have to say about this. Please use the comments below to express yourself.

The professor

“If you don’t make a difference to the cause, it can easily backfire,” says CB Bhattacharya, a professor at the European School of Management and Technology. “Stakeholders will reward you for the difference you make, not for saying, generally, ‘We support animals in Africa,’ or whatever it is.”

“They resent it when they feel the company is talking more than doing. It can lead to negative attributions, and then you’re not only wasting money on advertising, you’re creating a negative image about yourself.”

“I always say: Tell, don’t sell. Be factual, and don’t create an impression that you are trying to bring people to your own company because of what you are doing in the CSR realm.”


Bhattacharya points to two campaigns he thinks misfired: Bono’s Core Values tie-up with Louis Vuitton, pictured above (“the idea of luxury product [maker] doing significant good was met with a lot of skepticism”); and Philip Morris’s “Think. Don’t Smoke” campaign (“People saw it as ludicrous”).

He’s more positive about Unilever’s Campaign for Real Beauty. “It talked about self-esteem for women, and really did a lot to promote the sense that you could be who you are and not have to look like a model.”

The consultant

Mallen Baker, a CSR consultant, doesn’t think there’s anything wrong necessarily with hiring a PR firm. But he says the firm, like the company, needs to understand the difference between being “responsive to external audiences and creating dialogue” (which is a positive thing) and “pushing fluffy puppies and smiling children to cover up corporate wrong-doing” (which isn’t).

“There are plenty of companies that believe CSR is just about ‘giving something back’,” he says. “It’s not that they hire PR firms that’s the problem. It’s that they don’t understand the bigger picture about how they operate within society.”

The practitioner

Sarah Coles, who heads the CSR practice at PR firm Ruder Finn, distinguishes between campaigns that come from the “core” of a business, and those that are “just about giving money to a problem or putting a company logo on a charity event.”

“If CSR is truly core to a company’s business, it should be a natural extension of what the company is already doing, and not a ‘campaign,’ so to speak,” she says.


“While I don’t believe a company should bang their drum about CSR just for the sake of promotion or to check the ‘CSR box,’ I do see value in talking about the good things a company is doing. … By talking about it, we learn from each other.”

That’s what the experts think. What do you say about it?


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.