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They say, behind every successful brand, is a PR agency.

How about: Behind every responsible brand, is a PR agency?

Now, what is the first thought that comes to your mind when you hear that a public relations agency has decided to roll its “CSR experience” into a new division offering clients the opportunity to use their PR capabilities and budget more responsibly, more strategically?

  1. You condemn them as a reactionary, out-to-make-money business;
  2. You think: CSR is not PR, how many times do we have to say it?
  3. Wonder how long this will last.
  4. That’s interesting. Yet another way we can help businesses create shared value

That last statement was the main driver behind Ruder Finn’s new CSR practice, which officially launched two months ago, according to Senior Vice President Sarah Coles. “We had already been doing CSR work with clients like Novartis and Gerber. It felt like a natural next step [for the firm],” she says.

The communications industry is abuzz with the notion of creating shared value and the professional services sector especially, is in the center of all the activity.

Of course, Ruder Finn is not the first PR company to offer CSR strategy and solutions. Edelman has a robust CSR and sustainability solutions practice, as do Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, Golin Harris, Cone, and many others.


In fact, a quick search revealed that CRO Magazine even released a Top 10 list of “Corporate Responsibility PR firms” back in 2008, that placed Ruder Finn at No. 5. But how do you decipher such a ranking? If Ruder Finn was already being lauded for “CSR PR (?)” in 2008, what propelled them to create a new division now three years later?

And the big question: What is the differentiator in this burgeoning industry? 

I turned to Coles who will be leading the new practice and has spent 13 years in PR with the last seven at Ruder Finn, for some answers.

Sarah Coles, SVP, Ruder Finn

“When I started working with clients on CSR strategy, it wasn’t called CSR. Many were doing this without realizing it was called CSR. For example, at Novartis, we didn’t see our work in malaria treatment as CSR per se. It was part of their core mission, part of everyday business.”

“My first contact with CSR was when I started working with Gerber on childhood nutrition and later with Novartis. In the five years that followed, I got the chance to really see the effects of giving back to your community. I got to meet some of the patients and really saw firsthand the challenges that we in the western world would otherwise never understand. The whole experience really changed my impression of what needs to get done.”

The Case For CSR: What were the main motivations behind setting up a new practice focusing on CSR?

“There is a demand today to put together more strategic CSR programs; programs that are distinguished, unique to the company, and meaningful.”

“Consumers are pretty smart these days: They can see when something is reactionary and when it has been a longterm commitment. They trust brands that have longterm missions and whose programs are in sync with brand value.”

“A great example is the latest Tide for Hope campaign. It’s a perfect example of how core competencies can help provide value. This builds way more trust than something thrown together in a short-term cycle.”

“Ruder Finn also strongly believes that this is not only an opportunity to grow our practice but also to help define what the industry means by CSR and educate companies the issue to ensure that it continues to build as a best practice.”

The Nature of PR: Aren’t most programs reactionary in nature at first contact?

“It’s certainly a mix. Some companies who have been doing this for a long time are doing well and CSR contributes to that reputation. They build trust. Others are more reactionary but won’t be sustained or provide strategic value in the long run.”

“There is a real business case for CSR and companies are beginning to see that. Companies that have longterm Initiatives don’t have to resort to crisis management and there is value in that.”

Strategizing CSR: What then is the underlining ethos of the new practice?

“We learned a lot from working with PepsiCo on their Dream Machine recycling program. Today, we see a real opportunity in helping clients with cause marketing initiatives that reinforce their business practices and core competencies.”

“We counsel clients to do corporate social responsibility strategically. To build something that looks inside the company…dig around and see what they are already doing, what they stand for, what their core values are, and then create a campaign that captures all of that.”

Implementing CSR: How is implementing a CSR strategy going to differ from PR campaigns?

“We’re moving into pure strategy now. It’s not about short-term projects anymore. CSR is more about what makes sense for the business. How can I create something that my company stands for and does good for our community at the same time?”

“These programs go to the root of what CSR is all about: Good business sense that also provides value.”

Comments? Thoughts? Leave a comment or connect with me @AmanSinghCSR.