Corporate Social Responsibility – the Wake-Up Call

Increasingly companies across all industries – not least the construction and property industry – are being given a rude awakening to the importance of understanding and implementing corporate social responsibility. On the plus side, however, CSR is not a management tool necessarily requiring new staff structures and substantial resources: many of us are already practicing CSR and it is simply the way in which we present it which demands attention.

What was once simply a matter of a company donating a proportion of its income to the Chairman’s favourite charity, has become a powerful and essential business tool.

CSR is essentially the way in which companies benefit society. The range of methods used include good employer practices, community relations and the funding of special projects. Now viewed as essential, CSR is a means of ranking top companies (such as by Business in the Community’s Corporate Responsibility Index) and is regularly included in companies’ annual reports. Balance sheets are no longer purely financial: humanitarian issues must be presented and evaluated, and how profits are made matters as much as how big they are.

Clients and staff are well known to make decisions based on a company’s social responsibility record. Journalists too are an important audience, but there is no room for spin, as journalists and other commentators are all too familiar the art of ‘greenwash’.

Issues which the construction and property industry must address include harnessing new environmentally friendly technologies, introducing environmental efficiency and sustainability, addressing the impacts of construction and development and of course taking precautions to avoid reputational disasters.

Inevitably CSR must be acceptable to the board and shareholders and therefore it is necessary for those implementing it to communicate the business benefits and not simply push the “aren’t we nice?” angle. You will need good protocols and good measurement systems (preferably ones that are third party verified) – numbers, facts, projections, authority and accountability. Additionally, CSR helps a company to evaluate what it is doing and challenges its assumptions – both of which are vital to healthy growth. It can lead to a host of unexpected business benefits, from the obvious ‘feel-good’ factor to forging relationships with crucial third party groups and converting hostile local communities.

Of course there are many more reasons for avoiding the plain “aren’t we nice?” angle. A company which portrays itself in an overly positive light risks being slaughtered by the media over the most minor environmental infringement. Ethical and transparent communication with stakeholders and industry watchers will always prove to be the best policy – trying to hide other aspects of the business under a paper-thin CSR strategy is reputational suicide.

Therefore there is a necessity to create positives, rather than simply avoid negatives. This is an uphill struggle, as certain elements of the media have a tendency to focus on negatives. They have long memories too and may well recall that this company now making claims about saving the world was only a few years ago putting small contractors and suppliers out of business or ploughed a swathe through sites of special scientific interest with the justification of “we are just following orders”. The handing over of a cardboard cheque to a local charity will not right these wrongs.

The technique is a strategy which is imbedded in the company’s business plan and is aligned throughout an entire organisation – CSR cannot simply be driven from the PR department. Employees must be made aware the strategy and its implications. Even better, get the employees involved, let them help decide which local causes are important to them and allow each employee a day per year to help in the community. CSR strategy should be followed consistently across each organisational function, cascading down through management in the form of training, involvement and internal communication.