There’s an old saying that my mother shared with me a while back: “Show me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” With this, she meant that the strongest reflection of ourselves can be found in those with whom we associate. It’s good advice, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. 

These words apply not only in daily life, but in the business world as well.  As PR practitioners, we work alongside many great brands. In agency settings we have multiple clients at any given time. As my mother would wholeheartedly agree, we’re often judged by the kind of initiatives we undertake, and for whom. And we must always be aware that it works both ways – companies can also be judged by the kind of PR counsel they keep. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). 

CSR work has grown to prominence in recent years. Agencies track their clients’ sustainability efforts and voraciously advocate to the media about the positive impact these companies make on the world. Increasingly, consumers demand to know more about the CSR efforts of the brands they interact with, and often use this information to guide their purchasing decisions. This is especially evident with the millennial generation, whose enormous spending power has put them at the forefront of many marketing efforts. Millennials are perceived as extremely socially conscious and this perception has been supported by multiple market studies.

As CSR continues to be a focus of corporations’ operational and marketing efforts, belief in its importance has permeated all levels of these organizations. A recent PWC study found that 76% of global CEOs felt that it should be a priority to satisfy societal needs and protect the interests of future generations – beyond those of their immediate customers, employees and shareholders. 

And here’s where my mother’s advice rings most true: as high-level executives place more importance on CSR, they accordingly place more scrutiny on the organizations with whom they work in this regard. In general, we’re seeing that these CEOs—who ask us to put together strategic CSR programs for their brands—have a warmer image of us when they see that CSR is a vital part of our daily operations. 

Understandably, it can be difficult for PR firms to represent true CSR efforts. We don’t have physical plants that we can re-engineer to use less water or limit carbon dioxide emissions. We don’t have huge distribution networks, as large retailers do, which can be used to take a formal, product-focused stance on health issues – as our client CVS did with the removal of cigarettes from their stores. PR is a people-focused industry. Fortunately, true CSR begins with people. 

The strongest CSR move we can make as agencies is in employee engagement. One way to get employees engaged is to get them aligned with business goals and values. Involve them in pro bono work on behalf of non-profits, and give them the time and flexibility to treat these accounts as any other. Promote employee volunteerism at food banks, homeless shelters, etc. Set up regular donation drives that support organizations within the local community. Empower senior managers to play a pivotal role in communicating that vision as well. We have found that all of these initiatives produce happier and more generous employees.

Other pillars of effective CSR are environmental sustainability and promotion of better health practices. Agencies must push themselves every year to find at least one new way to lessen our carbon footprint. Many businesses already purchase copy paper made from 100% recycled materials. We must all continue to seek out products that focus on reusable materials. In kitchens and common areas, provide convenient receptacles for each type of recycling: paper products and plastics/metal waste. Design common spaces that conserve water and limit the use of plastics. In addition to offering staff gym membership privileges at free or discounted prices, engage in regular contests – with prizes – that incentivize staff to move more, get healthier, and flex their bragging rights. Encourage family members of employees to join the fun. Healthy and green efforts can be contagious. 

The best way I have found to properly serve clients in the CSR world is to become a guiding example. It is one of the reasons we take the time to detail our efforts in our regular CSR report. In articulating our efforts, we illustrate for our clients that we share the same philosophy: building a profitable business and working toward the greater good are not mutually exclusive endeavors. We show a common willingness to make the world a better place. My mother would approve.

By Karen Paff, Senior Managing Director and the Chief Media Strategist at RF Binder