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When a PR and marketing firm publishes a corporate citizenship report, there’s a tendency to view the results – and the commitments – with a pinch of salt. After all, they’re traditional masters of spin. Right?

Wrong, says John Edelman, the namesake PR agency’s managing director for global engagement and corporate responsibility. Here’s how Edelman’s press release describes the firm’s commitment to corporate citizenship:

“Some call it corporate social responsibility. Others call it sustainability. For Edelman, global citizenship resonates most as a term describing the larger responsibility business has to society. The firm recognizes its place in the world as global citizens, local offices and individuals.”

“We’re incredibly pleased [that] we were able to provide over $5 million in cash, non-cash (volunteerism) and in-kind giving in FY12 to the communities in which we operate. Giving back has always been a big part of our agency’s heritage and helping our communities is just one of the ways in which we can be responsible global citizens,” John added in a recent conversation over email.

So what does the report detail beyond the private firm’s green commitments and philanthropic donations?

Human Rights & Supply Chain

Reminding me that citizenship at Edelman has only been a global function for two years, John pointed to two major accomplishments. Edelman_Facts“The introduction of our human rights policy and our supplier code of  conduct. When I started in this role, we began to see more and more client requests and requests for proposals (RFPs) in regard to our citizenship policies. Our development of these two policies in FY12 is directly related to stakeholder expectations of Edelman as a global company,” he wrote.

The firm also joined the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex), a web-based platform and registry where companies report on CSR-related initiatives around business and labor practices, health and safety and the environment.

For the past two years, the firm has used the GRI framework as a baseline for its CSR reporting. In 2011, the firm also became “one of 80 companies to join the International Integrated Reporting (IIRC) pilot program…as part of our commitment, our report reflects elements of the Integrated Reporting framework, such as identifying our capitals and transforming that capital to value.”

Challenges of Setting CSR Goals…

I have often said/written that the challenge of contextualizing what corporate social responsibility means for the service-based industries is uniquely harder than the consumer products sector. Not that the pressure is any less, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of CSR reports publishing in the last two years, but I do believe that B2B firms must dig deeper to identify – and fulfill – their responsibility to society, employees and the environment.

What’s been a unique CSR challenge for a firm that relies on its talent and has an immense global presence?

According to John, “the environmental initiatives and goals have been the most challenging.” He explained:

“The biggest contributor to our carbon footprint is business travel, which accounts for 73 percent of our emissions. Business travel for client-facing projects is a key part of what we do every day. Other industries and companies have more control over Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions and can achieve reductions through direct actions. Given that we need to travel to service our clients, it’s harder for us to control our Scope 3 emissions. While we understand this challenge, we still need to work towards reducing our GHG emissions.”

“To that end, we are working individually with each hub office on setting a greenhouse gas reduction target and implementing practices such as increasing usage of video-conference facilities and purchasing 50 percent recycled paper.”

And it’s not just setting the goal that’s been hard.

…And Implementing CSR Programs

Implementing new programs across the firm’s markets has been a challenge as well, he said. “We Edelman's CSR Report 2012want to be a guiding force without being too prescriptive. We want to empower our employees around the world to implement and take part in citizenship initiatives with the understanding that they need to balance these with their regular workload,” he added.

John points out the inherent paradox that organizations like Edelman must tackle: how do you compel employees to volunteer and donate their time, money and skills while expecting them to manage a full workload and often, as is common in the PR world, 60-80 hour work weeks?

Ultimately it comes down to the committed few, driven by their passion and subjective understanding of their society and environment.

Disclosure: Led by Demand for Transparency

Since inception, Edelman has been a proudly private company. So why bother reporting on its non-financial goals? Especially when their service/product is often perceived in the market as spin?

It all comes down to being transparent, says the veteran marketing executive.

“Transparency has never been more important and we strongly believe that whether you’re a private or public company, you must be accountable for everything you do. Being transparent is part of how we operate and it’s necessary for us to report on the progress and challenges of our citizenship journey.”

As an example he pointed me to a section of the report, which highlights that the firm’s carbon footprint at “15,518 metric tons CO2e [had] actually increased since our last footprint period.” “We provide explanations for that increase, such as improved data-capture practices and control data quality, particularly on business air travel,” he said.

CSR: Business Opportunity?

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporationWhich leads to another question: As a PR agency, what was the motivation behind launching the Business + Social Purpose division – led by the legendary Carol Cone – beyond the obvious business  opportunity with companies evolving from cause marketing initiatives into more robust CSR strategies?

“It was clear that we wanted to ‘walk the talk.’ Working with clients on sustainability and citizenship is certainly a business opportunity, but beyond that, we needed to evolve and integrate our own practices. This is what we tell our clients: sustainability and citizenship should be integrated into the overall business,” he said.

Has the client-driven practice impacted cultural behavior and the firm’s organizational hierarchy?

“We have partnered with our Business + Social Purpose (B+SP) team members since we established Global Citizenship as a functional department. This partnership was important because citizenship was a new function, and we wanted to access the expertise of our people to evolve our own Global Citizenship capability.”

“As an example, we involved our B+SP team in our materiality analysis to prioritize our FY12 report topics. Through this analysis, we added an entire section on engaging with our clients, as a result of the dialogue with our B+SP members.”

Walking the talk? That at least is the objective, he said.

“We talk about the importance of the inside matching the outside, and the idea that your employees are your best ambassadors. Citizenship is an integrated part of our overall corporate strategy and having a unified message and integrated approach to it is imperative for effective impacts on our business and society, rather than having a siloed approach where citizenship sits on the periphery of the company’s strategy and operations.”

CSR Reporting: The Ultimate Reward

The ultimate reward of having a CSR strategy is when you can use the reporting function as a reflection on your organizational practices and improve them incrementally. As Edelman helps other organizations weave their way through and inculcate CSR into business strategy, it is important that the firm use the same philosophy internally.

“In the long-term, citizenship needs to be further integrated into our overall management systems. We Edelman Offices That Offer Culture and Work/Life Benefithave been making incremental progress year to year….During year one, we established a foundation; during year two, we have established some goals. In year three, we hope to develop metrics around CSR performance and eventually, we hope to create a citizenship scorecard that can be integrated into our management systems,” informed John.

How does the firm measure the impact it is driving with its clients?

“We believe it is important to measure impact of citizenship by looking at internal and external measurements. In addition to contributions to the bottom line, such as money saved by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and hours and value of volunteerism, it is important to measure employee engagement, such as employee recruitment and retention.”

“Now that we have established goals in some of these areas, we will next develop metrics to assess employee engagement and impact. In an effort to drive a deeper level of employee engagement, we created the Community Investment Grant program, which provides any full-time employee around the network with the opportunity to apply for funding to support a nonprofit organization where they volunteer or serve on the board.”

And let’s not forget the external piece, he reminded me.

“Any citizenship initiative must be tied to producing public engagement behavior outcomes which are at the core of Edelman’s business strategy such as building deeper communities, building trust, adding commercial value, and changing behavior.”

Holistic CSR goals, got it.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on September 21, 2012.