“If you believe in the power and impact of corporate social responsibility (CSR), not to mention the obligation companies have to give back, there is no time CSR is more important than times of crisis,” says Crayton Webb, owner and CEO of public relations and public affairs firm Sunwest Communications.
And there has been no crisis quite like that caused by COVID-19.
We asked Webb and his colleagues Whitney Strauss and Melissa Cameron, both of whom specialize in counseling clients on corporate social responsibility, or efforts by companies to support charitable goals, a few questions about how — and why — for-profit organizations should think about CSR right now.
Q: Why is corporate social responsibility as important as ever?
Strauss: In any crisis, corporate social responsibility is essential to local and global recovery. Statistically, the faster communities respond, the faster the recovery. Overall, though, corporations making socially responsible decisions help support communities but also maintain reputation, enable business continuity, create employee/customer loyalty and mitigate risk.
The way companies respond to this crisis is a defining moment that will be remembered for decades, similar to the way we looked at companies who responded after 9/11. “What did you do during the pandemic?” will be asked in the coming months and years. And new hires, customers and clients will be taking note, and a company’s reputation will hang in the balance. If you’re not participating, you’re not relevant.
Q. How can companies support the more immediate needs of their employees and business partners during COVID-19 while remaining true to an existing CSR strategy?
Cameron: I believe a company’s first priority is the health and welfare of their employees. Making sure a company’s own workforce is stable and cared for goes a long way to ensuring a resilient community. Initially, we saw companies whose lead executives took pay cuts to help contribute to the financial health of the organization or, instead of layoffs, cut back pay, so at least employees received something versus being laid off. These types of behaviors will be remembered when it’s time to recover and rehire again. It will be remembered and repaid in increased retention, higher productivity and a lasting, authentic reputation.
If a company has capacity, it should honor prior commitments to existing nonprofit partners. These partners need a company’s support now more than ever. Much-needed community programs are being canceled. I have seen several companies in nonessential businesses reach out to their nonprofit partners and just simply ask how they can help. Some have provided small gifts to help to make payroll; some have offered other noncash services and human capital. As nonprofits are reimagining how they do business, for-profit companies can help sustain them through in-kind donations.
Compassion is key — care for one’s own team members and then care for the community. A balance of both is important.
Q: How does a company without a CSR strategy get started in a moment like this?
Cameron: First, let’s look at intention. You need to ask yourself, “Why are we really doing this?” What is the motivational push for whatever it is we choose to do? If you are sure of the why, then you won’t go too far wrong. At all costs, you cannot make the mistake others have made to self-promote or have the appearance of self-promotion.
Identify the things that are important to those around you — and then provide them. Deliver practical, real help to improve people’s lives. Ask yourself these questions:
- How are we taking care of our employees physically, mentally and financially?
- How is my organization uniquely positioned to offer solutions to the problems presented by COVID-19?
- Do our products, brands, talent or services lend themselves to helpful engagement right now?
- Can we engage with local businesses to utilize their products and services to lift up our own local economy?
- If our workforce is not working at capacity? Can our team members pitch in and offer services?
- Are there like-minded partners with whom we can join forces in our industry to compound our efforts, like Get Shift Done, which was created to assist hourly workers in the service industry?
If you cannot provide any of the above, join in community caring and use your own circle of influence in echoing the messages of caution, altruism and hope.
Q: How might a strong CSR strategy help a company emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger?
Webb: The companies that get the best marks in consumer-based reputation surveys have a strong CSR portfolio and presence. Time and time again, consumers say they are more likely to trust, work for, refer and buy from the corporations that are giving back and getting involved.
So there’s a strong argument to be made in a crisis like this one — which is not only health related but also financial — that the companies who have invested in CSR previously have built up goodwill in the bank of public trust and are more likely to survive or rebound faster. That means they’re providing jobs and contributing to the economy faster again as well. In other words, their success leads to economic recovery that was possible in great part due to an investment they made in giving back and in their reputation.
Wise leaders understand that a crisis can be an opportunity for them and their companies to step forward and lead, which can have benefits down the road.