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Your CSR is Boring — Because You’re Picking the Wrong Fights

Brands must take real risks for their CSR to be taken seriously.

Your CSR activities are boring.

Zzz. Wait, what? Did anyone say “corporate social responsibility”?

CSR (corporate social responsibility) is when a brand contributes to the greater good of society — even though they technically don’t have to do it.

Typical examples could be:

Planting rainforest in the Amazon.
Drilling for freshwater in Africa.
Donating funds to disaster relief.

All good causes, for sure.

But brands wouldn’t pour funds into CSR activities if it weren’t for the idea that a business could profit from doing good. Hence, most brands would agree that it would be sort of nice if their customers would recognise and acknowledge their goodness every once in a while.

But, as PR professionals we know this too well: It’s a mad challenge to get public recognition for CSR activities.

Media Logic is Relentlessly Unforgiving

A global brand could be allocating millions of dollars for good causes, but they’ll only make headlines when they do something that’s … well, bad.

That’s the media logic at play.

It’s therefore difficult to promote CSR — what to do about it?

As a company serving the greater good through various CSR activities, in theory, you’re probably keeping your fingers crossed for something like this:

CSR in theory should be easy.
CSR should be easy, right?

However, in reality, it probably looks more like this:

How CSR actually works.
CSR often turns out to be a disappointment — in terms of PR.

What makes people care about stuff to begin with?

Most people find CSR activities to be both important and noble. Commendable, even.

But interesting? Not so much.
How did we end up here?

Imagine going out on a busy street to ask a thousand by-passers of their opinions. If you would ask them whether or not they think it’s important to save the rainforest, a vast majority would answer “yes”.

“Okay, so people do care about saving the rainforest. Good!”

But how many of these 1,000 people would actively engage with brands who are pouring millions of dollars into saving the rainforest? Out of a 1,000 people, maybe 1 — sometimes not even that.

“But wait… you mean that people don’t care about saving the rainforest when WE do it?”

As counterintuitive as it may seem at first glance, people tend to engage with less intensity when it comes to majority positions.

Conversion Theory: Enter the Misrepresented Minority

In scientific literature, this is known as the conversion theory.

The social psychologist Serge Moscovici found that we tend to become more engaged if we feel that we belong to a misrepresented minority.

If 99,9% of your peers think that the rainforest is worth saving and you agree, you don’t feel as if you belong to a wronged minority — and you’re therefore less likely to engage.

But most CSR issues tend to be backed by sound majorities.

In terms of PR effect, this is why CSR activities works best in those rare cases when a brand identifies a smart minority to liaise with — against a stupid majority.

How To Make Your CSR Less Boring

Brands are generally perceived as both powerful and wealthy.

To be accepted as the underdog, the brand must put themselves in a vulnerable position to deserve public acknowledgement.

1. There must be a clearly defined enemy, and the stronger the enemy, the more interesting the story.

In the case of the rainforest, we know that there are companies profiting from laying it to waste. Or maybe they are victims, too?

If you want people to stand by your side, they’ll need to know exactly who and what you’re up against — and that the brand is putting itself at real risk by taking this position.

Taking a stand on behalf of the rainforest is risk-free from a storytelling perspective.

Is there a clearly defined enemy backed by a stupid majority?
Are you backed by a smart minority in taking down this enemy?

2. There must be obstacles and stakes to keep the brand accountable and the audience engaged.

CSR, too, obeys under the basic laws of storytelling; not only do you need a strong enemy, you must accept a hero’s journey.

You can’t expect people to trust or respect you if you don’t put your brand in harm’s way for what it believes in.

There must be something more at risk, something that’s tangible for the brand’s bottom line. The brand must make enemies.

What’s at stake for your company?
In what way is the outcome for your business uncertain?

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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