CSR and Advocacy After COVID-19: Coming Back Stronger

July 1, 2020

As companies emerge from the first 100 days of responding to COVID-19 and operating under new and ever-changing circumstances, more organizations now have the luxury of time to look ahead. One of the first areas where many are looking to come back stronger is under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

While there still are many uncertainties about what the post-COVID-19 reality will look like for society, observers and experts agree that the format, focus and expectations around social advocacy will change. As a result, companies should evolve their original CSR pathway to meet new social and consumer environment. Even among companies with well-established CSR programs, it’s important to consider that it’s a much different world now than it was in March 2020.

In the United States, social issues, like public health, healthcare, social justice and racial inequity have emerged at the forefront of public concern. None of these are new issues, but they are top of mind for many Americans. With these shifting priorities and “people first” focus, we have seen other advocacy issues take a backseat to the current sociopolitical circumstances (e.g., environment, waste, climate change, animal rights and welfare).

Companies cannot shy away from these tough topics. Given the increase around social activism, consumers frequently interpret silence from a company as complacent and tone deaf. APCO research shows that consumers expect companies to take a stand on social issues and find ways to create real positive change. In fact, 90 percent of Americans believe companies should be at least somewhat involved in addressing social issues, and 92 percent of Americans believe the best companies serve society as a whole, not just their customers.

While these expectations around corporate advocacy were prevalent prior to the global health crisis, today we are seeing that 85 percent of Americans want businesses to pay more attention to the health and safety of their customers, and 75 percent of Americans want businesses to pay more attention to the way companies treat their employees. Issuing a position statement is no longer enough—consumers want companies to be in tune with the hot topics and show concrete action. They want to know that companies are being sympathetic to the issues, taking an opportunity to reflect, making changes internally and contributing positively externally.

So how can companies come back stronger in today’s advocacy driven environment? Consider the following questions to guide you forward:

  • Using your expertise and resources, where can your industry and company create the most positive impact?
  • What kind of advocacy is authentic to your company’s identity and mission?
  • Where does it make the most sense for you to lend your voice and support a social cause?
  • How can you meet the evolving expectations of your stakeholders most effectively?

Think about how companies across market sectors are making a real impact today and shaping a POV and CSR pathway through their industry space. Tech companies have used their resources and facilities to fund research or to produce and donate critical materials during this health crisis. Consumer-facing and retail companies have donated supplies or even space—allowing their parking lots to be used for COVID-19 testing and other community needs. Given that non-profits are facing new challenges under current restrictions and operational limitations, it’s up to private companies with the means and resources to take the lead on donations and find creative ways to have a positive impact.

Companies looking to mobilize consumers behind their advocacy activities will find that not only has the topical landscape shifted, but so too has the preferred style and approach of implementing CSR initiatives. For the most part, top-down, in-person advocacy programs and events are at a standstill and being replaced by more grassroots, digitally-based campaigns. With the pandemic still underway, most Americans are considering ways to advocate effectively from afar, with some exceptions (e.g., large-scale protests for racial justice). Moreover, the influence of the collective from a grassroots level has grown to overshadow the voice of leadership and demonstrate the unique capacity to mobilize the masses.

These are truly unprecedented times and if we don’t evolve to meet new expectations, there is a real risk of being left behind and associated with the problem rather than the solution. Corporations and private companies with the means and resources have a responsibility and opportunity to have a social impact and improve the ways you “do good.” It’s clear now more than ever that being an effective advocate and helping create progress will help your brand and business come back stronger from the crisis and gain the trust and support from the public and your consumers. At the end of the day, isn’t it a win when you can help both your business and society?

APCO Alumna Lee Betancourt coauthored this piece. 

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