Corporate Citizenship, Explained

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Corporate citizenship is an increasingly important component of PR.

Accounting firm KPMG has chronicled it for years through its corporate responsibility (CR) reports. It has found that companies are increasingly integrating non-revenue data — e.g., the community investments a business has made and any measures it is taking to address climate change — into many public reports for shareholders. Its 2017 survey of 4,900 organizations found that three-fourths of them issued CR reports, and that reporting rates were over 60% in every industry surveyed.

A team works on an environmental CSR program.

What is corporate citizenship, and how does it relate to PR?

Corporate citizenship is the concept of organizations placing the interests of society on the same level as their bottom lines. Under this corporate citizenship definition, a good corporate citizen is a company that prioritizes making a positive social impact, acting ethically and ensuring the long-term environmental sustainability of its operations, among other actions.

The key practices of corporate citizenship — namely, demonstrating clear commitments to social, environmental and cultural causes, from the CEO level on down — are also often referred to as corporate social responsibility (CSR). The terms are interchangeable. Within modern public relations strategies, CSR and corporate citizenship are important for building mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and the public. This is the main goal of PR more broadly, as defined by the Public Relations Society of America.

The Importance of Corporate Citizenship to PR

Why do people choose to support or do business with any organization? Their reasons are rarely purely financial.

For instance, a landmark Nielsen survey found that two-thirds of U.S. consumers were willing to pay more for products and services from companies they perceived as socially responsible. But what does it look like for a firm to put a CSR plan into action?

Consider the case of Starbucks, a brand whose relatively high prices were once enough to spur competitor McDonald’s to derisively label it “four bucks” in the late 2000s, per a Gothamist report on a related billboard campaign. Still, Starbucks’ premium pricing has not resulted in a notable loss in market share to less expensive alternatives. The coffee chain’s PR image as an ethical company with highly visible corporate citizenship activities may be a major reason why.

The brand has committed to ethical sourcing of all of its coffee through its Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) initiative, which helps project the image of a corporation dedicated to making life better for coffee farmers as well as consumers. This approach to corporate citizenship enables Starbucks to be seen as doing “the right thing” in terms of social impact in the public eye, while also maintaining its bottom line through robust sales and loyal customers.

For another spin on corporate citizenship, look at payments provider and order tracking aggregator Shop. There are numerous possible ways to pay for something online, from platform-specific services such as Apple Pay to manually entered credit card numbers. So why choose a relatively less-known option in Shop?

Shop bills Shop Pay as “a thoughtful way to pay” online. Whenever a customer uses Shop Pay, Shop offsets the carbon emissions associated with the purchase and delivery by protecting an equivalent number of trees. The company estimated that, as of August 2020, it had protected 14.7 million trees, offsetting nearly 13,000 tons of emissions.

In summation, Starbucks and Shop have both made their corporate citizenship efforts central to their PR and marketing strategies. Go to either organization’s main website, and their CSR actions are front and center — under “Social Impact” for Starbucks and “Carbon Offsetting” for Shop. Like many others, these two companies see corporate citizenship as good for both PR and business.

What Are the Different Approaches to Corporate Citizenship?

There are many possible ways for an organization to generate positive PR via a CSR program. The options range from a report to investors on how it is reducing its carbon footprint to a broader public campaign on its commitment to public health and worker safety, a step many companies took after COVID-19. Let’s look at some of the broad categories into which most attempts at corporate citizenship fit.

Environmental Commitments

Climate change is one of the central issues of the 21st century. Organizations in virtually every space have at least some incentive to make environmental initiatives part of their CSR programs, since a more volatile climate will have mostly negative repercussions for their operations.

Apple, the world’s most valuable corporation as of August 2020, has shown that even firms in the emission-heavy technology space — in which carbon-intensive activities such as aluminum smelting are essential to production — can make environmentalism central to their corporate citizenship activities. By 2030, the firm plans to make every one of its devices and its entire supply chain carbon neutral.

Philanthropic Giving

Organizations often donate money to causes and to other organizations or groups with shared values. These donations may be large or small scale, but either way, they have the same effect of signaling corporate citizenship via an interest in charitable giving — i.e., something beyond the pure generation of profit and management of the bottom line.

Some retailers like Goodwill and Walmart offer customers the option to round up a payment to the nearest dollar, with the additional amount donated to charity. This PR strategy can be beneficial to everyone involved: The buyer can feel better about their purchase, the retailer can burnish its image as a responsible corporate citizen enacting positive social impact and the charity itself receives additional funding.

Diversity-Focused Hiring Practices

Showing a commitment to hiring candidates from a wide range of backgrounds — and following through on that promise — can help organizations improve their images. Moreover, public statements and follow-through actions related to diversity can make it easier for companies to retain talent and avoid groupthink. That was one of the key findings of a CNBC analysis of the aftermath of the corporate response to the 2020 protests following George Floyd’s death.

Because significant gaps still exist between genders, races and ethnic backgrounds in terms of salary and attainment of senior-level positions, organizations focused on hiring a diverse workforce can demonstrate their interest in promoting equality. This positioning can in turn create more positive associations with their brands.

Volunteer Contributions

Mars Inc., a global manufacturer of confectionery products and pet foods, has long managed a volunteer program designed to get employees engaged with their communities. Volunteering is useful within the context of CSR, as it is a clear sign of an organization’s broader commitment to society.

Employees who volunteer can also develop practical skills through their experience. Meanwhile, prospective hires may see volunteering opportunities as an important job perk.

Which Careers Are Related to Corporate Citizenship?

Corporate citizenship is fundamentally a PR strategy, and as such many of the positions related to it will be in PR. The most common are PR specialist and PR manager.

A volunteer gathering signatures.

These two positions are similar, although the PR manager is more senior and will involve more extensive duties related to overseeing personnel and working with executives. As a PR specialist, you might write press releases, prepare speeches, do CSR-related outreach to the media, manage crises and respond to requests for information, among other responsibilities.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that PR specialist positions will grow 6% from 2018 or 2028, or about as fast as average for all occupations. Median 2019 pay was over $61,000 annually.

With an online Master’s in Strategic Public Relations from the George Washington University, you can prepare for a PR career related to corporate citizenship strategies. Learn more by visiting the program overview page today.

Recommended Readings:
Corporate social responsibility vs. conscious capitalism
What you can learn about sustainable communications in the online SPR program

Sources:
KPMG | The KPMG Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting 2017
Marketing Charts | Will Consumers Pay More For Products From Socially Responsible Companies?
Starbucks Coffee Company | C.A.F.E. Practices: Starbucks Approach To Ethically Sourcing Coffee
Shop | Carbon Offsetting
CNBC | Companies are making bold promises about greater diversity, but there’s a long way to go
Forbes | 4 Reasons Why A Corporate Volunteer Program Is A Smart Investment
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics | Public Relations Specialists
Apple Inc. | Apple commits to be 100 percent carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030
Gothamist | Starbucks, Feeling Desperate, Introduces Value Meal Combos