CSR and Storytelling

Creating reliable and insightful sustainability data sets that can be acted upon, is the bedrock of any developed corporate social responsibility policy but it’s really only half of the battle. Without an effective strategy in place to translate and communicate meaning behind your CSR policy all your efforts can become obscured behind a wall of numeric complexity. It’s all too easy for Chief Sustainability Officers to lose sight of this goal and get lost in the numbers and KPIs. What’s needed is a coherent strategy to link all this quantitative sustainability data to a relatable and compelling sustainability story.

Getting Lost in Numbers

In its raw form, the reams and reams of sustainability data found within any large organisation can appear completely disconnected from the everyday experiences and values of the end customer. Working at the coalface with all this raw data it can be hard to see how to bring together so many trends, adjustments and efficiencies into a single CSR narrative. In part this is down to the disconnected and disparate nature of the individual datasets and the individual business functions they exist within. The trick is to see all this data as part of one single data topography, with organisation-wide implications.

The reality is that every single row of data in some way informs CSR policy and as such has a bearing on every part of the business, from supply chain management through to marketing and sales. The failure of so many organisations is in translating this into a single powerful story. In many senses, it’s entirely forgivable to get lost in the data and real off your biggest achievements in number forms. Experience and various studies have shown us that data heavy marketing messages often fall flat and consumers usually respond better to real stories that evoke real emotions.

From Stats to Stories

Companies need to humanise their CSR policies if they are to achieve PR success and effectively communicate their company’s commitment to real world issues like climate change and deforestation. A 2010 survey from PR firm Burson-Marsteller found that, across 14 industries, 75% of consumers believed in the importance of CSR and 70% of were willing to pay more for a product from a company that took it seriously too.

The PR and marketing appeal of a strong CSR policy is clear but communicating it through numbers will only ever fall short if you can’t play into a wider narrative. It’s no good for businesses to just be seen crunching the data and finding internal efficiencies if they fail to tell consumers why they believe what they are doing is important. It’s pretty telling then that the Burson-Marsteller survey also found that just 13% of consumers read about a company’s CSR policy on their website.

Getting from the stats to the story isn’t a straightforward affair of course. To a large extent it’s an exercise in summation and simplification. Good CSO’s therefore need to learn to tread the line between trite clichés and generalisations and overly convoluted interpretation.

Strategies for CSR Storytelling Success

I want to look now at some key strategies for creating relatable and inspiring stories from all this sustainability data. The first thing to remember is that not every dataset or efficiency can be individually communicated and needs to be seen as part of a wider series of policies, each with their own human benefit and purpose.

  • Joining up PR and CSR
    CSO’s have to learn to work with and within the framework of PR. Establishing strong relationships between marketing departments and the CSO is crucial if an overarching CSR strategy is to be developed and effectively communicated through the right marketing channels.
  • Give real world examples
    Raw data can paint vivid and powerful pictures to those who have learnt to interpret it, but to the average consumer they can be intimidating and even off putting. Learn to use real world examples to back up your achievements.
  • Establish a Narrative Tone
    CSR storytelling needs to be consistent if it is to become effective. Establishing a tone is part of the process of defining your identity as an ethical and socially responsible brand. Usually this will look to emotionally powerful or shocking storytelling, both of which convey appropriate gravitas around issues such as fair trade, climate change and corporate accountability. On the very rare occasion humour can even be used as long as it is appropriate and draws attention to real issues without belittling them.
  • Know your audience
    Effective communication means understanding who you are telling your story to. Whilst your website CSR statement might necessitate a simple and concise approach to appeal to consumers, corporate communications may afford a more detailed and specific approach with more emphasis on data.
  • Utilise social media and the web
    In today’s digital environment it’s simply not enough to put your CSR mission policy on your website and be done with it. By utilising social media, you not only have the opportunity to drive the conversation but to respond to inevitable criticism and draw attention to your CSR policy. This means putting your company under the spotlight, sure, but this kind of honesty and openness can be hugely powerful in establishing your corporate responsibility credentials amongst your existing and potential customer base.