Corporate social responsibility (CSR) was born in the 1990s, came of age in the 2000s, and is today a shiny, handy tool in every marketer’s public relations toolbox. There has clearly been an explosion in CSR in recent years—but user beware: its misuse may be your downfall.

CSR aligns a social cause or public service initiative with the core beliefs and ethics of a company with the intention of building a brand identity beyond a mere product-based value exchange. These campaigns can tend to run on “do-gooder” altruistic money, and are further powered by consumer insights, marketing spit and polish to ultimately capture the essence of brand-affinity: trust.

Ask any PR pro over the course of their career, they will have run many altruistic, CSR-based campaigns: a financial literacy program for students run by a community bank; a construction firm running training scholarships for workforce entrants; a manufacturer’s employee volunteerism for regional projects.

A brand’s CSR activities provide content to build positive community relations, media coverage, and social media. But CSR can also backfire

While CSR campaigns circle the drain of highly politicized public issues, they have just as much potential to divide an already divided public—even turning previous brand loyalists into pitchfork-wielding protesters.

Supporters and detractors alike have flocked to high-profile CSR campaigns in the past, including Nike’s Colin Kaepernick “social justice” ads, Gillette’s anti-“toxic masculinity” marketing following the #MeToo movement, and even Unilever’s groundbreaking “Real Beauty” campaign for Dove that was launched 15 years ago.

Here’s the issue: specific marketing messages that dive headlong into political and social territory can often be interpreted in vastly different and unpredictable ways by the spread of global audiences. Further complicating these campaigns is the fact that, if a controversial political skew is indeed central to a brand’s message, the brand likely risks offending at least half the population.

Still, instead of avoiding such an outcome like the plague, some brands now appear set on burning bridges deliberately with certain swaths of the public in a bid to earn chops among other, more desirable audiences. Millennials and niche groups are perfect examples of such a desired group.

Before undertaking a CSR campaign, consider the following in order to ensure you’re on the right track:

  • Campaigns built on culturally divisive issues are like playing with fireworks. Any explosion better be a controlled one.
  • Focus more on pure philanthropy rather than politics in order to ensure lower-risk backlash.
  • Research your brand’s audiences. You may have many audience segments, ideologically speaking.
  • Decide if a “big splash” ad campaign on a potentially divisive platform is truly worth the PR headaches, both short term, and long term.
  • Public relations professionals who are also skilled crisis planners should help craft a strategy that won’t leave your brand forced to climb out of a reputational hole.

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Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the Founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations: 5WPR is one of the 20 largest PR Firms in the United States.

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