Directors and senior executives need to understand the communication challenges of corporate social responsibility programming as well as the sustainability activities that make up the program, according to a new Conference Board report, What Board Members Should Know About Communicating CSR.

“Needless to say, the business returns to CSR are contingent on the stakeholders’ awareness of what a company actually does in this field,” says C.B. Bhattacharya, co-author of the report and E.ON chair professor in corporate responsibility and associate dean of international relations at the European School of Management & Technology in Berlin, Germany.

“However, research shows that awareness of a company’s CSR activities among its external stakeholders (including its consumers) or even its internal stakeholders (its employees) is typically low. This represents a major stumbling block in the company’s quest to reap strategic benefits from a social responsibility program.”

The report includes sixrecommendations on how corporate directors can oversee the design and implementation of effective CSR communication strategies.

1. Seek CSR activities that fit into the business strategies: Before deciding to allocate resources on a certain CSR activity, the company should fully evaluate how the activity fits within the business strategy as well as the ability of stakeholders to naturally perceive such congruence.

2. Emphasize CSR commitment and impact to foster consumer advocacy: Any CSR communication strategy should adequately emphasize and document the long-term commitment by the company and the concrete impact of its CSR activities.

3. Seek credibility through the support of independent, external communication sources: The less controllable the communicator is from the company’s perspective, the more credible the CSR message is to the stakeholders.

4. Encourage employee and consumer word-of-mouth: A CSR communication strategy should strive for various forms of stakeholder engagement. Employees, in particular, through their social ties, may have a wide reach among other groups of interest in the company.

5. Select social initiatives with high-issue support: Companies should monitor what their key stakeholders consider as priority issues, and undertake those initiatives with high issue support.

6. Be mindful of stakeholder perception of business industry: The effects of CSR communication may also be moderated by the reputation of the industry in which a company operates.

“Corporate communication is a potent tool, and where used inadequately, it can backfire and possibly hurt the company’s reputation and its ability to pursue its business strategy,” says Matteo Tonello, research director of corporate leadership at The Conference Board. “When it comes to CSR activities, in particular, an ill-designed communication campaign can raise doubts about the company’s real motives, its true commitment to sustainability, and the coherence of those activities with the core business.”