Build Up Your Trust Bank: Corporate Social Responsibility's Role in Crisis Communications

Build Up Your Trust Bank: Corporate Social Responsibility’s Role in Crisis Communications

No individual or organization is immune to a public relations crisis — it can happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone. To preemptively prepare for a crisis, corporations, businesses, and other organizations can practice corporate social responsibility, or CSR, to inoculate themselves against public relations disasters. 

Shelley Wigley, the author of Stukent’s “Crisis Communication” courseware, defines corporate social responsibility as such: “The promotion of corporate social responsibility efforts does not deal with an organization’s sound business practices and products; instead, it focuses on the organization’s philanthropic contributions to society and how it is ‘doing good’ in the community.” 

To thrive in business, your students need to learn powerful strategies for turning crises into organizational opportunities — or better yet, preventing them from happening at all. So, how do you help students learn to use CSR in their public relations strategy, and how can Wigley’s courseware bring those concepts into your classroom? Read on to find out!

Why Should Students Learn CSR?

The impact of CSR on corporate communications is significant: Companies that engage in CSR are seen as more socially responsible and are more likely to be viewed positively by stakeholders such as customers, employees, investors, and the general public. CSR can generate goodwill in the short term, providing a shield to the company in times of potential future crisis.

“CSR is big business,” Wigley says in her courseware. “Many companies have CSR or Corporate Citizenship programs. … But unlike bolstering, CSR messaging offers positive, supportive messages that do not deal with a company’s sound business practices and products, but rather its contributions to wider society and how it’s making the world a better place.”

Industry experts and academics agree that CSR leads to more favorable organizational reputations: In a 2020 paper, Dr. Asif Mahmood stated that “consumer purchase intention is influenced 60% by perception of the company as against 40% perception of its products,” and that more than 42% of an organization’s image stems from its CSR activities. 

Chastity Heyward for Forbes agrees: “A 2016 report by Aflac [found] investments in CSR are not typically viewed by investors as a waste of money, but rather an ‘indicator of a corporate culture less likely to produce expensive missteps like financial fraud.’ The study said 61% of investors consider CSR a sign of ‘ethical corporate behavior, which reduces investment risk.’”

With these numbers in mind, it’s easy to see why “an estimated 90% of companies on the S&P 500 index published a CSR report in 2019, compared to just 20% in 2011.” CSR is an important tool in a marketing or PR toolkit — not only can it help soften the blow of a potential PR crisis, but it can help convert more customers and increase an organization’s market share. 

Moreover, companies can differentiate themselves from the competition by demonstrating their commitment to social, ethical, philanthropic, and economic initiatives that align with their values and mission. In the “Crisis Communication” courseware, Wigley talks about how Patagonia has differentiated itself from the outdoor clothing industry by stating its “in business to save the planet.” 

“The company promotes outstanding labor standards and working conditions throughout its supply chain and a living wage standard to others in the industry,” Wigley says. Patagonia invests heavily in grassroots efforts to meet the climate crisis “head-on” and encourages its customers to take action, too.

However, it’s important to note that CSR initiatives must align with an organization’s culture, values, and mission. If an organization engages in CSR for the sole purpose of improving its brand perception, it will appear inauthentic and opportunistic. “Patagonia’s CSR efforts are strategic,” Wigley says. “It aligns its corporate social responsibility efforts with environmental causes, which makes sense because both Patagonia and the people [who] use its products care about saving the planet.”

For an example closer to home — at least for those of us here at Stukent — our mission is to help educators help students help the world. To fulfill that mission, we support educators and students in Benin, Africa by providing the resources they need to thrive. Our donations fund teacher salaries, student materials, meals, and so much more.

While Stukent’s donations aren’t specifically made to support CSR initiatives, the cause does align with our mission and values. In short, our goal is to make the world a better place by improving education, and access to education, for all. 

Investing in a CSR Trust Bank

PR legend Al Golin was one of the first to recognize the power of CSR in branding and communications; Al coined the term “trust bank” during a call with McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in 1957. Recalling the conversation, Al said:

[“McDonald’s] community involvement was a part of their culture from the very beginning, and still is today, even with their huge advertising budget. I coined the term ‘Trust Bank’ for all the community involvement, which helped them build ‘deposits’ of goodwill in case they might need it for a ‘withdrawal’ when a crisis or sensitive issue arose.”

If you’re familiar with a Ronald McDonald charity or the McJobs program, you’ve heard about their CSR programs. “McDonald’s was a trailblazer in the area of CSR,” Wigley says. “[The company’s] McJobs program hires and trains mentally and physically challenged people so they can work, it [sponsors] the Special Olympics, and the Ronald McDonald House Charities that provides housing to families of sick children.”

But the company has made significant withdrawals from its trust bank, too. 

Over the years, the McDonald’s brand has faced significant PR crises: Liebeck v. McDonald’s, perhaps better known as “the hot coffee case,” the documentary film “Super Size Me,” the “pink slime” debacle, and the McDonald’s Monopoly scam, to name just a few. Despite its many scandals, the company remains the largest and most successful fast-food chain in the world, perhaps due in part to its numerous and well-communicated CSR efforts.

“Consumers reward socially responsible companies ‘through their resilience to negative information about the company,’” Wigley says. “They are more likely to forgive a company for its mistakes or missteps if it has actively practiced CSR.” Sometimes referred to as the “halo effect,” the strategy leverages an organization’s prior reputation to shield it from reputational damage during a crisis.

Implement CSR Concepts in Your Classroom

To help students understand the importance of CSR initiatives to their future business, marketing, or communications careers, bring CSR into your curriculum!

  • Case studies: Asking students to analyze the CSR efforts of their favorite companies can help them break down real-world strategies. Is the company’s CSR strategy aligned with its overall strategy? Do the company’s CSR initiatives reflect its brand and values? How important are the company’s CSR efforts to its stakeholders? Is there room for improvement in aligning the company’s CSR initiatives with its branding and mission?
  •  Guest speakers: Inviting guest speakers who have experience in creating and implementing CSR campaigns can be a valuable way to teach the concept. Stukent offers a great Expert Session on “Preemptive Crisis Management Through Employee Engagement” with Whitney Eichinger, Vice President of Culture and Engagement at Southwest Airlines.
  • Volunteer work: Encouraging students to participate in volunteer work can help them understand the importance of CSR and its impact on society. This can include participating in community service projects or volunteering for organizations that focus on environmental or social issues. Afterward, students can reflect on their experiences and discuss how companies can make a positive impact on society through their CSR initiatives.
  • Debates: Conducting debates on controversial CSR topics can be a fun and engaging way to teach the concept. This can include debates on issues such as whether companies should prioritize profits over social responsibility, or whether CSR is a genuine commitment or a PR strategy. 

The Best Tool for Teaching Preemptive Crisis Communication Strategies 

It’s certainly difficult to give students hands-on, real-world experience with crisis communication, which is why we developed the Stukent Crisis Communication Simternship™, a simulation that pairs with Wigley’s “Crisis Communication” courseware. This robust simulation puts students into high-pressure PR situations where they will practice responding to both reputational and operational crises without any real-world risk. Best of all, Stukent Simternships are easy to implement in any curriculum and include powerful resources for both educators and students. 

With Wigley’s “Crisis Communication” courseware and the Stukent Crisis Communication Simternship, educators can prepare students to anticipate, navigate, and mitigate handle any crisis situation that may come their way. 

At Stukent, we’re here to help educators help students help the world. To learn more about our revolutionary courseware and Simternships, or to get FREE instructor access to our products, visit our website.

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