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CSR communications: a check-list to avoid “woke-washing”

by Julien Brasseur

20November2019

The world is full of social challenges, from the environment to transport, diversity and poverty. And brands can clearly play a role in social transformation. Some of them not only walk the walk but also communicate about their various initiatives. Yet there are all too many examples of CSR communications gone wrong. The road to hell is paved with communications officers’ good intentions. Voice has created a check-list and a simple methodology to help you avoid woke-washing.

Dove, Zara, Cadbury, Sodastream and Abercrombie & Fitch are just a few famous names that have recently hit the headlines for CSR communications that fell wide of the mark. Today's highly connected citizen-consumers have become experts at sniffing out communications campaigns that are in truth just advertising stunts. They can spot it a mile off when companies use CSR for brand awareness by riding the wave of growing consumer concern about social issues.

You don’t mess with consumers’ hard-won trust. Before throwing yourself into a sustained communications campaign, work to build your CSR actions’ credibility. Without credibility, you won't earn people’s trust. Here is a check-list and a methodology (our Trust-building Journey) to guide your CSR strategy.

What does it mean to be “credible”?

Credibility is a complex, multi-faceted concept. At Voice, we like the analogy used by Stephen M. R. Covey in his book The Speed of Trust, where he compares credibility to a tree.
In his analogy, each part of the tree is a potential route to developing your credibility. Use it as a check-list to assess how sound and credible your CSR actions and communications are.

The roots: your integrity

  • Are you acting in accordance with your intrinsic values? Do your deeds match your words? You are far more credible when your actions reflect a positive, selfless attitude. For example, avoid communicating about ocean pollution if you don’t treat your employees fairly.

The trunk: your intent

  • Are your actions guided by the search for mutual benefit? What is your agenda? This is the area that breeds the most suspicion and doubt among consumers about the motives behind your communications. While it is commendable to want to contribute to social challenges, there is currently a fightback against brands hijacking them for advertising purposes.
  • You need to be transparent about your motives if you want to avoid exposing yourself to criticism. Be precise about your aims. This will force you to communicate about the impact of your actions.

The branches: your capabilities

  • Talented, competent people inspire confidence. As do rational, efficient organisations. When it comes to your CSR communications, taking on socially positive actions that are related to your area of business is a powerful way of establishing your credibility.
  • When UK-based chocolate brand Cadbury launched a multicoloured chocolate bar to promote diversity, it was acting outside its area of expertise. The move led to an avalanche of sarcastic tweets like this one.
  • On the other hand, when IKEA set up nap zones at motorway rest areas to combat sleep-deprived driving, it made sense, was fun, and was helpful.
  • On the other hand, when IKEA set up nap zones at motorway rest areas to combat sleep-deprived driving, it made sense, was fun, and was helpful.
    Don’t act alone

The fruit: your results

  • The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Looking at the fruit of your labours objectively is, in my opinion, the most powerful aspect of your communication because it proves that you have more than just good intentions. By considering the impact of your CSR actions, you embody your commitment to them. You demonstrate that your social actions are not built on sand, but that they are alive and kicking within your organisation. To retain your integrity, be modest: don't blow your trumpet too soon. Wait until you have some tangible data to tell people about. Remember to be consistent and honest when communicating your results. Again, this is to demonstrate that your CSR strategy is part of a deep-rooted company-wide approach.

Voice’s Trust-Building Journey: listen, think, engage

To stop you getting bogged down in your CSR communications, you can also apply the Trust-Building Journey:

  • Listen:
    Listen to your main audience (clients, employees, partners, investors, NGOs, residents, etc.). Take actions that respond to their needs and social interests.
    Ask them how you can help while generating a positive impact.
  • Think:
    You should always come back to your initial aim: your “why?”. Which social cause best fits your “why”? Are you the right person to take action and to speak out on this issue? How can you get your employees involved?
  • Engage:
    Engage in the issue. Act. Learn from your mistakes. Measure the impact of your actions. Thank your audience. And only communicate when your actions and results are ripe.

The world needs great initiatives and stories to get people to tackle the many social challenges we face. Your company can contribute and play its part. Voice is here to guide you through the world of CSR communications.

A few of our CSR case studies

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