The New Companies Bill was passed in Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament) on 8th August, 2013, making it mandatory for profit making companies to contribute 2% of the profit after tax (PAT) of preceding three years towards Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha) had cleared the bill on 18th December 2012. The bill will now go for presidential assent. Once the President of India clears the bill, India will possibly become the first country to have CSR spending through a statutory provision.
This new proposed legislation has created a flutter within the Indian PR sector, which sees it as the next big opportunity. Agencies are busy either upgrading their service offerings with special capabilities to manage the CSR communications or setting up new verticals. For example, Concept PR, recently announced the launch of ‘Community Relations,’ a separate practice dedicated to CSR. Given this scenario, I thought we need to discuss this topic in detail, hence approached few industry leaders to get some direction and perspective on this new trend/opportunity.
We have always been communicating our clients’ CSR activities through our regular PR approach and journalists used to see our pitches with lot of cynicism, but probably with the changed scenario even media will be now more vigilant on CSR initiatives of corporates. Let’s hear from the industry stalwarts themselves on their views about this upcoming opportunity:
Launching a special new vertical focused on CSR communications, BN Kumar, Executive Director, Concept PR, says that his firm has been offering client’s advice on communicating CSR initiatives however now with the entire new division they will advise clients on 360-degree approach on CSR.
Nikhil Dey, President – PR, Genesis Burson-Marsteller, says, “We have a dedicated CSR team that has been in existence for over 3 years now, who provide services ranging from primary needs assessment to developing, executing, managing and reporting results for programmes that are a combination of community interventions as well as broader cause-based advocacy initiatives. We believe it is a huge differentiator for us, as we have been committed to this area of specialisation much before this bill has put a spotlight on CSR.”
Affirming Nikhil’s views, Jaideep Shergill, CEO, MSL Group India, says, “We have a vertical named PurPle that advises clients on CSR innovation, community objectives and programmes. At its core is our belief that the people who make up corporations no longer want to say what they do, but why they do it. Firms that concentrate on benefiting the community attract the best talent and build the best brands.”
Though many large corporates have been contributing substantial amounts towards community development, however very few focus on communicating the same to their stakeholders effectively.
Nikhil, opines, “With this mandate coming in, Indian PR consultancies will need to gear up to help their clients achieve their CSR goals by aligning community and other stakeholder engagements with the company’s business objective. This will require a completely different skill set and specialists who understand the ecosystem, can deliver meaningful counsel and have the capacity to execute programs, monitor them and report back in the form of an annual CSR report. Therefore while it is a huge opportunity, it is in equal measure a huge responsibility that rests on the shoulders of PR consultancies to be able to walk the talk and not just do the ‘last mile’ talking.”
While on the other hand Jaideep had a different point of view, he says, “While I believe that businesses should focus on the communities in which they operate, I’m against mandated requirement. CSR, by its very nature, comes from belief and a sense of duty. It’s not something you can enforce. In fact, this part of the law may backfire, with many firms simply throwing money at a problem without careful thought or a plan to achieve specific objectives. Some businesses might even resent being forced to devote revenues to CSR, turning them off the concept forever.
As CSR is becoming increasingly important for clients and PR agencies are building the skills required for it. However, it’s only the corporations that are serious about causes – and who voluntarily apply their energy to them – seek our advice. Those forced to implement CSR programmes wouldn’t approach us.”
BN Kumar adds that, “This is not going to be just another expense or a matter of routine communication exercise. Companies will have to take it very seriously and we are happy that we have geared up to meet the new challenge.”
So what does all this mean to us, will it open up new job opportunities? Will this mean that we will have to add on new skills to effectively communicate and offer a holistic approach to CSR?
Experts’ state that with the demand for specialized CSR communications is increasing, corporates will want to have on their team (inhouse/external), communicators who understand community relations, people who have worked with NGOs in the past or have been a part of a corporate sustainability team within large corporate houses.
However Jaideep is of the opinion that “Any well-thought-out CSR programme is ‘PR-able’. However, it would be in bad taste to tom-tom such work. A well-implemented, well-meaning effort organically leads to great PR. Our job would be to ensure that there is robust, regular communication with the community in question and to showcase the human stories that result from the CSR programme. The focus throughout must be on the cause rather than the client.” Which means even a clear understanding of the principals of PR should help, but an experience of CSR communications will be an added advantage. To get that experience, you need not wait for your agency or your company to offer you an opportunity to work on a CSR mandate; you can even approach an NGO and offer your expertise voluntarily as well. This will not only help them but also yourself in the long-term.
In this scenario, how should corporates look at the changed landscape, what are the changes they need to bring in their approach of driving CSR campaigns, what are the pitfalls they need to be aware about?
Nikhil, strongly feels that, “CSR has been a part of the Indian business culture since the early days of industry. The ideal state to reach would be when corporate houses operate with a social conscience that is an inherent part of their business strategies. One advice we offer our clients is that CSR communication should never be “pushed” for media to report. Employee engagement is another huge area that PR can play a role by ensuring that there is strong employee involvement and pride in the CSR initiative of a company. Another point we make to clients is to consider the impact of disengagement from a cause. If for some reason there is a rethink on a CSR program mid-way there is irreparable damage that can be done to reputation as well as to stakeholder trust.”
But the biggest question that props out whenever you speak about CSR PR is that, Does CSR needs PR at all?
Jaideep, says, “Like other activities of an organisation, CSR also requires reaching out to influencers, decision-makers and other stakeholders, including employees. Communication is an important part of any CSR activity.”
While Nikhil is of the opinion that, “Action must precede communication. Once a company has done a body of work that has shown results over a sustained period of time, it automatically gets recognised for its efforts. So the best PR approach for CSR is to focus on doing good work, credit for it will follow.”
With this, I open the floor to all our forum experts to share their views on the topic. Your views only can truly complete this piece in all sense. Please comment here or on my blog www.vikypedia.in or tweet @vikramkharvi
- Concept PR forays into CSR consultancy (vikypedia.in)