Corporate Responsibility and Hot-Button Issues on Display

As the corporate responsibility field matures, companies are moving beyond traditional cause-related marketing and grants to embedding responsibility-thinking into the core of their business. Increasingly, companies are not just sticking to tried and true causes like hunger or cancer, but confidently displaying their corporate responsibility values on hot-button issues. This shift can be observed through their (1) advertising, (2) public actions, and (3) how they are using their core expertise for good. 
 
Advertising: Lean In
 
Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In ushered in a new dialogue on modern feminism. The sale of millions of copies of Sandberg’s book indicated the topic was ripe and resonant. Successful female stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Serena Williams highlighted that pay inequality is alive and well. Around the same time, advertisers found that ads that empower were less likely to be skipped.
 
Dove's "Real Beauty Sketches", a 3-minute video in which a sketch artist draw women based on their own description and then based on a stranger's description, became the most watched ad of all time--and does not contain a single shot of the actual product. Always' #LikeAGirl asks, "When did doing something 'like a girl' become an insult?" When asked by the producer, "What does it mean to you when I say, 'Run like a girl'?" a young girl calmly blinks and replies, "It means, run fast as you can." Again, the ad does not contain any image of their product—in fact, if one had never heard of Always, you may be hard-pressed to name what it is they do or make. Instead, the ad focuses on empowering their target demographic. 
 

Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches”
 
Sandberg, recognizing gender equality depends just as much on men as it does on women, called for both men and women to "lean in together". With professional basketball players upheld as public models of masculinity, the NBA's #LeanInTogether ad campaign shows that they too, (LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Draymond Green included) both support and are supported by women. 
 
LeBron James 'LeanInTogether' campaign
 
Public Actions: LGBT Equality
 
Beyond advertising, which often is a proactive way of displaying a brand, companies also demonstrate their responsibility values through their reactions and public actions. Particularly after controversial news, these actions have the potential to make a splash on the public conscience because of the attention that large corporations command.
 
Many large, respectable companies have adopted anti-discrimination policies. To show that they are not merely ticking off a box on the list of modern best practices, some have established in-house Diversity & Inclusion teams while others have taken it a step further by showing—very  publicly—that there is indeed teeth behind their policies. 
 
North Carolina's anti-LGBT bathroom law stirred up heated comments from both sides of the issue. When one of those offensive anti-LGBT comments came from Curt Schilling, a high-profile ESPN baseball analyst, ESPN took swift action, stating the very next day, "ESPN is an inclusive company. Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated."
 
The stiff corporate stance in response to this law in North Carolina could not be ignored. While many companies publicly expressed their disappointment on the legislation, Target took a further step by proclaiming that it would defy the law's requirement, allowing employees and customers to choose the restroom and fitting room that corresponded with their gender identities. In an interview for the New York Times, Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that, "Making these progressive value statements is a new form of advertising."
 
Sometimes these statements may interfere with existing advertising. Nike severed ties with celebrated Filipino boxer, Manny Pacquiao, following his derogatory statements comparing gays to animals. Nike underscored its commitment to LGBT rights by not tolerating someone who is supposed to be a "face" for the brand to demonstrate otherwise.
 
Using Core Expertise for Good: Refugee Crisis
 
With the broad uptake of corporate responsibility, companies are thinking more about what they can uniquely bring to the table. Things like matching gifts and volunteering programs are now de rigeur. Companies want to stand out in responsibility just as they do in business, and what better way to do that than to leverage their natural core competencies? 
 
One issue for which private sector ingenuity is desperately needed is the current global refugee crisis. The scale of the situation is immense, with 65 million people displaced. At the end of June, the White House issued a Call to Action to the U.S. private sector, recognizing that, "A crisis of this scale . . . requires more than government action."
 
While supporting refugees remains a polarizing subject, a few companies have not only boldly taken a stance to support refugees, but have done so by leveraging their core expertise. Airbnb, whose tagline is "Belong Anywhere," provides travel credits to relief workers working with Mercy Corps and International Rescue Committee in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia. Hosts can also utilize an Airbnb tool to offer free accommodation to disaster survivors and people aiding them. 
 
Getting refugees to a safe new home is just the first part of a journey. LinkedIn's Welcome Talent program helps refugees in Sweden to find job opportunities. Welcome Talent provides resources, such as how to build an effective LinkedIn profile, in both English and Arabic, and connects local employers to new talent. 
 
Technology is also essential to refugees. Technology facilitates communication with family and friends, finding out news, determining where to go next. Cisco, a provider of connectivity, deployed its Tactical Operations Team to install wifi networks and device charging stations at nearly 20 refugee sites in Southern and Central Europe, and its employees continue to develop cutting-edge technology to help address some of the key challenges faced by refugees.  
 

      
Cisco’s “There's Never Been a Better Time” ad images
 
Cisco featured their refugee work in an ad campaign called "There's never been a better time," which showcases the importance of applying technology to difficult problems. While advertising, public actions and using core expertise for good have been presented in three different sections in this post, we see that there is an integration at play. We can expect to see responsibility integrating more tightly into the domains of Marketing, PR, and business operations groups. 
 
What does this mean for nonprofits and corporate responsibility professionals? 
 
The evolution of corporate responsibility inevitably demands adaptation on the part of nonprofits as well. All the above examples qualify as citizenship, but all either do not involve a nonprofit partner or involve just a single nonprofit partner. Nonprofits should start viewing companies as more than just a source of revenue or volunteer hands and consider how to develop truly strategic and multi-faceted partnerships. Companies can be powerful allies in driving awareness to a cause, if not a specific organization.  
 
As responsibility at companies becomes embedded at a deeper level, it also is no longer necessarily siloed within a formal CSR department or team. Ultimately, the mission of CSR departments should be the same as many great nonprofit organizations: to make themselves obsolete. That goal will be achieved when every employee and every department holds corporate responsibility—whatever that may mean for their role in the company—to be a key priority that informs all decisions. 
 
Sometimes citizenship takes courage. The risk/reward adage in business perhaps has a place in CSR as well. This year's Corporate Philanthropy Institute's theme is, "Be Courageous." Join us on December 1, 2016 to learn how companies are taking bold steps to positively impact communities around the world. 
 
 
For more information on how SVCF can help your company with its corporate citizenship strategies, please contact donate@siliconvalleycf.org