The Secret to Winning CSR: Become a Better Company

We just read this month’s Harvard Business Review piece on corporate reputation by former Edelman vice chairman and Walmart corporate affairs VP Leslie Dach, and it’s  worth a glance if you haven’t seen it.

To summarize, Walmart struggled to improve its reputation with better messaging, but when Hurricane Katrina struck its team had something of an “aha” moment. “No internal debate was needed” because the team knew that mobilizing its resources to provide victims with food, emergency supplies and cash was simply “the right [thing] to do”. Afterward, the path forward became clearer—Walmart would seek out opportunities and set specific objectives in areas like sustainability and “women’s economic empowerment” in order to overcome bad press.

The point, also made in Gini Dietrich’s post addressing the article last week on Spin Sucks, is that actions will always beat spin and the best defense is a good offense…if you take “offense” to mean listening to criticisms and aggressively seeking out opportunities to change the lives of those who would be your customers rather than simply arguing with your critics.

Given the findings of Cone’s recent CSR study, we think the conclusion is obvious: companies seeking better press shouldn’t have to struggle to spin their story. As long as they act in ways that visibly benefit the communities where they operate, the stories will write themselves.

Yes, it’s a simple big-idea conclusion rather than a “how to” strategy guide. And it doesn’t say much in the way of specifics about Walmart’s status as a responsible corporation (which remains very much up for debate). But that doesn’t make it any less true or mean that we should stop repeating it.