Measure Twice, Cut Once with CSR

The repercussions of failing to heed the old carpenter’s adage “measure twice, cut once” have been on full display recently as Britain faces a hard Brexit and New York politicians mourn the loss of Amazon’s HQ2. In each case, a failure to fully measure stakeholder sentiment about plans rather than concepts led to wasted time and resources. For CSR professionals, embracing the concept of responsibility without taking full measure of their communications plans may likewise lead to a program that proves wasteful and doesn’t fully measure up to expectations.

Devil’s in the Details

A seemingly endless list of clichés conveys the idea that details often reveal a truth quite different from the best laid plans. Yet in 2016, a British majority embraced the concept of an independent Britain no longer tied to the whims of the European Union. Two years later, the country cannot come to an agreement on how to exit the EU in such a manner that does not spark economic upheaval. Parliament has twice rejected a compromise negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May, but it has also prohibited an exit without any negotiated compromise. With the EU allowing only three more weeks to reach an approved agreement and polls showing 60 percent of the public now supporting “remain,” millions are calling for a second cut at the original referendum now that the reality of a Brexit doesn’t measure up to the concept of an independent Britain.

#HQ2Expensive

While Brexit largely highlighted the grassroots rising up to support an attractive concept without a plan, the opposite was true of New York’s pursuit of Amazon’s second North American headquarters, known as HQ2. With visions of a financial and employment windfall for the city and state, New York politicians, like so many others in communities across the country, set out to lure Amazon to build in their community. After all, how could having the e-commerce behemoth with its 25,000 planned jobs build a headquarters in your community be a bad thing? As it turned out, the citizens of New York’s Long Island City neighborhood, which won the headquarters lottery along with Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, could enumerate several ways, to the point that Amazon canceled its plans to build there.

Like Brexit, once the details of what H2Q really meant in terms of investment and local disruption came to light, the concept once so enthusiastically embraced quickly lost its attractive luster. Only this time, the resistance was coming from the grassroots. Faced with the reality of H2Q, citizens grew concerned about the tax incentives given, the likelihood of rising housing prices and the strain placed on local infrastructure.

In both cases, there was a lack of cooperation and transparency, with little regard for measuring the sentiment of all parties involved to reach a place at which plans met promise. It’s as if a carpenter set out to build a custom cabinet without room measurements. The concept of a custom piece of furniture seems appealing — until it doesn’t fit in the room for which it was built.

Lessons for CSR Pros

Like independence and financial prosperity, the concept of corporate social responsibility at face value seems to have no downside. After all, what’s the alternative: an irresponsible company? However, like Brexit and the failed HQ2 New York, the details of CSR efforts don’t always measure up.

Mastercard learned this last year after introducing a cause marketing campaign leading up to the World Cup. The credit card brand announced on its Latin American and Caribbean social media feeds that for every goal scored in the World Cup and any further competition until March 2020 by its brand ambassadors Lionel Messi and Neymar, it would provide 10,000 meals to starving children. The backlash was swift. Why, many asked, don’t they just choose to feed hungry children rather than tie it to the performance of athletes? Further outcry expressed concern over the use of starving children for marketing purposes. Faced with overwhelming criticism, the company canceled the campaign and instead promised to contribute two million meals in 2018 as part of its work with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP).

Don’t be Overwhelmed by Good Vibes

Too often, when a single positive benefit – promoting independence, creating jobs, feeding starving children – is the main thrust of deliberations, the full measure of a program is unknown. They are worthy rally cries and a great start to building plans that will truly have a positive impact. However, unless each step of the plan is measured against real and perceived impacts before decisions are made and stakeholders alerted, the pitfalls can detract from the positive and even raise questions about the credibility of leaders. That can be difficult, particularly when a CEO is enthusiastic about a social cause and wants to pursue timely action or a mention in a sustainability report before the execution is fully baked.

Measurement a Must

Developing and successfully executing a CSR campaign is really no different from launching a product. In both cases, the intention is to solve a problem, bolster the corporate brand and create positive engagement with stakeholders. Therefore, a CSR initiative deserves the same level of scrutiny and planning. Few companies would launch a new product without some level of market research and customer testing, yet many seemingly launch CSR campaigns without any external research or focus group testing. Imagine if Mastercard had facilitated just one small focus group to test its Tweet before launching. Rather than having to shelve all the time and resources that went into the campaign, perhaps the team could have tweaked it to focus on the children who admire the soccer stars rather than on the performance of those stars.

Taking full measure of a program and testing it against eventualities and the varied interest of different stakeholder groups isn’t easy. It can mean a greater upfront investment of time and money. The alternative, though, is that if you don’t make the effort, you will be making a second cut: this time, to minimize your losses.

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    Ron Loch is Managing Director, Chicago, G&S Business Communications. In a competitive global marketplace, Ron helps businesses gain by doing good. A G&S veteran, Ron’s collaborations with global Fortune 1000 companies and green business start-ups have delivered strategic, integrated programs to gain value from sustainability efforts and commercialize clean technologies. Ron oversees publication of the annual G&S Sense & Sustainability® Study, which gauges public perceptions of the corporate commitment to environmental and social responsibility. He also moderates many of the firm’s thought leadership events, which have welcomed speakers from Businessweek, Burt’s Bees, Verizon, Time Magazine, The Sustainability Consortium, The World Food Prize Foundation, U.S. Green Building Council, U.N. Global Compact, and more. Ron graduated with a B.S. in Journalism and Mass Communications from Iowa State University and received a Master’s Certificate in Managing the Sustainable Enterprise from the Illinois Institute of Technology Stuart School of Business. He has also completed the certified GRI sustainability reporting curriculum. Ron hones his crisis management skills by tackling obstacles in Spartan races.

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