Practice Before Preaching: 5 Reasons PR Agencies Need To Take Their Own CSR Seriously

August 7, 2015

A number of years ago we were wrapping up a very promising pitch to a FTSE 100 company on an ambitious multi-million pound CSR initiative when one of the key decision-makers asked, reasonably enough, “What does YOUR company do for itself for CSR?”

We hemmed. We hawed. We fumbled our papers nervously. And tried to string together a coherent story about the hodgepodge of projects we had undertaken in the past: pet initiatives, random charitable events and support for good causes that were not specifically tied to our business.

Earnest and honest, but not exactly strategic in our approach to corporate citizenship.

We didn’t get the job.

This was one important step toward establishing the kind of CSR program we recommend to clients: initiatives based on leveraging a core competence toward a cause that resonates with employees and business partners and that helps address an issue that improves their business climate and/or is a good use of shareholder resources.

The other step was a remark from one of our employees in one of our regular feedback surveys: “We don’t practice what we preach when it comes to being part of our community.”

Ouch. But fair – for while Ketchum has a 90+ year history of engaging in the community, it wasn’t widely known within the agency. It wasn’t as strategic as it needed to be. And we began to see and hear a growing interest in making it into one.

And thus was born an initiative that I am immensely proud of and that, I think perhaps somewhat immodestly, is one of the best corporate citizenship programs not just in PR, but in the wider marketing services industry.

We call it (maybe unimaginatively) KSR, and you can read all about it here if you’re interested. It features, among other things, a focus on promoting literacy and girls’ education in partnership with Room To Read, an ongoing partnership with the World Economic Forum and an annual ‘month of service’ (coming up soon in September) in which we go out into our communities and show that a global agency can be a good local neighbor.

It works for us.

And with eight years of success in building out a CSR program that our people direct, support and in many cases, cherish, I think all agencies should consider something similar. Here’s what I think you’ll get from it:

1. No more Cobbler’s Kids Syndrome.
We sometimes fail to treat our own business, including our CSR efforts, with the same care and consideration we give to our clients. Usually nobody knows but us. Sometimes, though, it costs big. Witness our lost opportunity a few years ago. Do it right before advising others.

2. An antidote to cynicism.
I’m a believer in communications as a force for good in the world. Sometimes our work for our clients gives us an opportunity to prove it; but sometimes we need to show it directly, with our own efforts (click to tweet). Don’t just talk about the power of PR – show it.

3. An authentic connection to your employees.
Many CSR programs (or to be more precise, philanthropic activities) center around the boss’s interest. That’s all well and good, but in our case having a body of employees from around the world choose, prioritize and execute activities in support of causes we care about as a whole organization, within business principles we have established together, has proven enormously powerful as a recruitment, retention and engagement investment. Let your people loose.

4. A way to emphasize what’s important in your culture.
We have grown globally over the decades through acquisitions, start-ups and offshoots, producing a dynamic but variable sense of who we are and how we operate around the world. But because our CSR activities are employee-driven, globally themed but locally activated, we’ve created a new language to draw our people together around some of our core values. Get your hands dirty to show what’s really important.

5. Win awards.
Still not sold? Changing the world and making your people heroes and winning great new assignments not enough? Ok, do it to win awards. Design and activate a strategic CSR program for your agency, and you’ll be recognized for it in any of the myriad industry awards programs celebrating great work and innovation. Even better, you’ll gain the lasting respect of your clients once your idea is recognized publicly for its originality.

As a Senior Partner, CEO of Ketchum’s European operations and Chairman of the London office, David Gallagher brings more than 20 years of public relations experience, both as a client and as a senior agency adviser, to some of the world’s leading brands and companies. Interested in PR, politics, Texas Longhorns and life with two labradoodles. Follow him on Twitter @TBoneGallagher.