The term “Corporate Social Responsibility” has been of great importance for PR and marketing professionals for a long time. Issues such as sustainability, charity, and efforts to improve public and employee wellbeing have been key considerations for years.
But PR is not an altruistic discipline, and PR activity must always be linked to business objectives. PR is about helping companies achieve the kind of reputation which encourages preference for their services and products – and in so doing helping them make money.
Yet – as in almost every aspect of life – the pandemic brought about major changes in the PR and communications sector.
2020 was a record year for brands communicating – and, indeed, acting – in socially responsible ways, with little or no apparent prospect for material gain from their actions. The pandemic was the stimulus for a wave of CSR activities on both the large and the small scale: gifts for healthcare workers, public awareness campaigns about hygiene, and charity fundraising activities, to name a few examples. Elsewhere, manufacturers converted their activities to help in the fight against the pandemic.
Of course, business considerations were not absent from these socially responsible actions. Brands’ activities during the pandemic are sure to influence public and stakeholder popularity for years to come. If a brand cannot be socially responsible during a global crisis, its CSR activities in more stable times lose their credibility. Nevertheless, the actions of many brands in 2020 were about as selfless as possible for profit-making organisations.
But with vaccines on the way and a return to normal life hoped for in 2021, companies and communications agencies will soon need to consider how best to return to more standard communications aimed at promoting preference for products or services. Managing this transition may be tricky. People have grown used to seeing brands act in apparently altruistic ways. It might come as a shock to see hard-nosed business considerations – the ultimate objectives of PR activity – return to the fore. So the transition will, in many cases, have to be slow, and carefully managed.
For many in the public, 2020 highlighted the true benefits of Corporate Social Responsibility for the first time. Businesses really can contribute to globally important issues. They really can make a difference: helping to save jobs, to save the planet, and to save lives. Corporate Social Responsibility has assumed a new level of importance and respect.
Brands should remember this new perspective which Covid-19 has brought to their activities, and must balance the return to normality with the retention of what was good about 2020. The pandemic’s boost to CSR activities is no short-term phenomenon. It has made CSR a more important long-term consideration than it has ever been before.