Effective communication is crucial for fostering an organisation’s positive public profile. Companies often prioritise the marketing and advertising of their products and services, but struggle to communicate their CSI work. The last Trialogue CSI forum for 2016 interrogated the appropriateness of and need to communicate CSI.
Corporate communications must take a variety of stakeholders into account, including internal (staff and board members) and external (shareholders, existing and potential customers/clients) stakeholders. The overarching message to these stakeholders might be the same, but the methods, communication channels and language used to convey this message must be tailored to suit each key stakeholder group. For the purposes of this forum discussion, delegates focused on issues related to external communication to the general public.
Benefits of Communicating CSI
- Enhance company reputation by reinforcing positive values
- Raise public profile which could retain existing and attract new customers/clients
- Reinforce buy-in from the stakeholders and beneficiaries of a CSI initiative
- Ensure that direct and indirect beneficiaries are informed about the company’s involvement, and hold the company accountable to its commitments
- Share learnings about CSI initiatives, such that others can implement similar programmes more effectively
- Attract partners that can help to enhance the CSI initiative
- Raise awareness about the project, which could help to secure funding from new sources
- Contribute to the positive narrative of the country
Pitfalls of Communicating CSI
- When not done with enough depth, CSI communications can appear boastful or insincere
- Company may incur criticism that the budget spent on communicating CSI could have been better spent on beneficiaries
- Communications could raise the expectations of beneficiaries, which might be difficult to manage
- If the project does not succeed or encounters challenges outside of the company’s control, the company may still be held responsible for failures and suffer reputational damage
- Communicating a project may result in some level of brand competition, with other companies preferring to rather sponsor a different organisation that they can solely associate their brand with
The main outcomes of the discussion, in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, were:
- The wide internal understanding and faith in the legitimacy of a company’s CSI efforts among staff members should precede external CSI communication.
- Communicating CSI is not really optional, since companies must respond to the growing local and global calls for greater corporate involvement in the development of society. However, responding to this pressure should be done with depth and in alignment with the broader business’s communication.
- A company’s CSI work can be an extension of its overall brand, rather than a separate message altogether.
- Some companies’ CSI departments have their own communication budgets, while others rely on the budgets of marketing departments. The structuring and control of a CSI communication budget should be based on the CSI communication strategy. If a company’s CSI work is being communicated separately from the rest of the brand, then it should have its own budget. Whereas, if the company’s CSI work is integrated into broader company communication, then it may make more sense to include the CSI communication into the broader marketing budget.
- Closer collaboration between the marketing and CSI departments is however necessary when it comes to the formulation of messaging, since each department has its own unique set of skills and insight, which will contribute to a well-refined and thoughtful message.
- Once a company has developed its brand association with a specific cause or project, the next vital step is for the company to demonstrate commitment and follow-through.
- Companies should think creatively and reflectively about how to communicate their CSI work, as well as how their communication is contributing to the broader development of the CSI sector. In South Africa, companies tend to communicate their good work through fairly basic stories (e.g. showing the CEO handing a cheque to a beneficiary). Companies may also lean towards sharing sad stories, rather than stories of impact (e.g. using photos of hungry children to encourage customers to contribute to the company’s social development cause). Companies should also communicate stories of best practice, key lessons in development and drive thought leadership to help strengthen the broader developmental sector and ensure benchmarking.
- Global trends show that social media and infographics are useful attention-grabbing tools for what can often be rather complex stories.
- Companies should reflect on how best to leverage their existing communication channels to reach out to their external audiences. For example, an airline could showcase its social development work on its in-flight TV or in its in-flight magazine.
Investec case study
Namhla Saba, a CSI consultant at Investec, was invited to share the company’s approach to communicating its CSI work.
- For Investec, CSI is integrated and embedded into the business and its values, and has buy-in from the company’s top leadership.
- Through its CSI interventions, the company endeavours to build an emotional connection with its brand.
- While Investec’s CSI team is the custodian of CSI stories, the company ensures that beneficiaries are involved in crafting their own stories, to ensure authenticity.
- Long-term commitment is a key contributor to success. Having the same person in charge of CSI for 14 years has helped to ensure follow-through and consistency, and the company has been supporting its flagship project – Promaths – for 11 years.