Thursday, November 14, 2019

A Texas-twist on CSR with Jennifer Evans of the CKP Group


Jennifer Evans
This week, I connected with Jennifer Evans, a principle at the CKP group, a woman-owned integrated communications firm in Houston – which, by the way, is a city I’m eager to visit given that everyone I speak with is so passionate about what a wonderful place it is! 

As for Jenn, she has spent 25 years as a marketing and communications professional, during which time she has witnessed the shift in corporate social responsibility (CSR) from a “nice to have” to a “must have.” She also believes that Houstonians place a particular emphasis on community investment, which has been borne out by the number of Houston-based businesses consistently ranked on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual Charity Navigator index

She shares her insights here. Enjoy!

MK: How do you define CSR?

JE: At CKP, we define Corporate Social Responsibility as "an entity’s responsibility to operate in an ethical and sustainable way and be responsive to its community impact—whether the impact or potential impact be environmental, social or economic.” This is our collective leadership team worldview and it permeates every aspect of our business.

MK: How have you seen CSR change over the past two decades?

JE: Twenty years ago, CSR was a trendy name for everything from corporate philanthropy to remediation. Communications departments routinely assigned junior level staff to manage gala budgets and write checks for random causes. On the other side of the building—or even the globe—Health, Safety and Environment leads were beginning to grapple with public reporting and measurement. Ten years ago, we saw the beginning integration of multiple disciplines forming together in companies, mostly still housed in Communications or Human Resources, such as CSR for HSE, Strategic Philanthropy, Community Engagement, Diversity & Inclusion and others.

Today, smart companies have tenured professionals who lead all or most of these functions under one stand-alone umbrella and basically in service to the company and its many departments. Sure, there have always been global brands that were pacesetters for these changes, but regulations and public scrutiny have changed the rules of engagement.

MK: Who is driving the push for greater focus on social and environmental performance amongst your clients?

JE: In our work with clients, particularly those in heavily regulated industries like energy and manufacturing, we see priority and focus coming from all aspects of the internal organization. Mitigation and remediation certainly put pressure on businesses and more so in industries such as energy, health and bio-tech.

What we see in our brand management role with clients in multiple markets is a voracious appetite in the court of public opinion—which now plays in social media—for disclosure and pro-active communications. Consumers and customers in general—whether B2B or B2C—are going to be the loudest group and will ask questions sooner or later. Issues management strategy can help in managing activist groups. But if your potential or existing clients challenge you, be prepared to lose them to other brands if they don’t like what you say. That’s not to say that employees and investors don’t play key roles in managing your risks and being responsible. But when you remove or reduce the power of financial gain to win favor, we are all consumers and we vote with our feet.

Footnote: Gen Z, our youngest marketplace-viable generation, is unbelievably astute, and I expect their demands and expectations of accountability to have a stronger impact than Millennials. Social and political demographers continue to forecast that this next generation will have the rage of Gen Y, the tenacity of Gen X and the loyalty (and lack of forgiveness) of the Boomers. Their role as consumers will overshadow the rest. And their advocacy will make or break brands. Best be prepared.

MK: What advice do you have for creating successful partnerships?

JE: Regardless of whether you work for a global business or a single stand-alone shop, you should collaborate with partners that are open and willing to support you. I often see businesses make social investments that don't align with one or more of these groups' passions and engagement. This usually results in a one-time engagement and a failed relationship.

We recommend first doing the internal work to identify the values you want to promote, the social impact you may have and where, and the categories of nonprofits and public/private groups that make sense. Once you've got that strategy in place, it's much easier to research and identify potential partners.

Treat it like hiring an employee. Get to know each other and transparently discuss your challenges and concerns. Then, the magic happens. Real, vibrant partnerships develop and they are much bigger and better than a cookie cutter sponsorship package that a random organization asks you to fund.

MK: What is your advice for brands and businesses in industries that aren't heavily regulated? What's the ROI in being bold about your business position on CSR for such companies?

JE: CKP was founded in Houston, Texas, which consistently ranks at the top of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual Charity Navigator index. I have lived in several large and small communities, and I’ve not seen the attention to which people doing business in Houston pay to how others invest in the community.

We work with large global brands and small start-ups, and the single thing all businesses have in common is the need for third-party endorsements. Whether a business produces cookies, renewable energy, marketing and public relations services (like CKP) or something else, savvy business leaders know that your close rate is higher and reputation is more protected when others with strong brand reputation back you. Our team at CKP counsels many clients in their sponsorship, CSR and partnership negotiations and communications.

In any household or business, we must budget to protect, care for and to give to the things that matter to us. Defining what matters early on and having it resonate with internal and external stakeholders is just good business. We’ve got some excellent case studies at CKP and the consumer marketplace at large too—from small emerging industry, locally owned, as well as reputation-challenged large businesses—that show how real partnerships and social investments benefit everyone.

Regulations are present in all industries, and stakeholders are a given no matter what kind of business you run. We frequently hear from clients that wish to begin organizing their reporting and messaging, in anticipation of public exposure and changing politics. Preparedness is key. Don’t wait to be called out to communicate your community impacts.

1 comment:

  1. Great read. I often see CSR being treated with a marketing lens, and there are many points in here that support making it an integral part of the core of the business. Great post!

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