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Finding the fine line between a story and PR

THERE'S a fine line between an interesting news article on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and one that's free publicity. But some companies complain that journalists reject stories about CSR outright without knowing the difference. The media responds that companies should follow CSR as a matter of principle, no matter whether their efforts are publicised. However, both focus too much on charity and philanthropy, to the detriment of more newsworthy CSR topics, say insiders.

THERE'S a fine line between an interesting news article on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and one that's free publicity. But some companies complain that journalists reject stories about CSR outright without knowing the difference. The media responds that companies should follow CSR as a matter of principle, no matter whether their efforts are publicised. However, both focus too much on charity and philanthropy, to the detriment of more newsworthy CSR topics, say insiders.

"The ideal approach from the media would be to recognise what is beneficial to report about companies' activities and in the public interest," said Eduard Marček from Panet NGO.

For example, if a company supports an innovative project or is engaged in an event that has a positive impact on society, it is perfectly reasonable to mention the company's name, he said.
Companies don't just use the media to build a good reputation, said Ján Kondáš, director of corporate communications in Slovak Telekom. The two can work together to serve an informative role, he said.

For example, the media can report on how to apply for a grant from a company's foundation. This saves the company the expense of having to buy an advertisement, which it can then put toward the grants, he said. The problem lies in that "the Slovak media, unlike in more developed and older democracies, lack the knowledge of how to provide positive examples of CSR," Kondáš said.

Three years ago, the monthly business magazine Strategie decided to run a regular column devoted to CSR.

"The reason was simple - one of Strategie's main goals is to inspire firms, advertising agencies and media with new ideas that can move their business forward, and CSR is one such opportunity," said Martin Mazag, editor-in-chief of Strategie.

CSR can be a means of obtaining a considerable competitive advantage and becoming a modern and attractive company, he added.

The modern consumer knows a company's reputation and is interested in such things as how it treats the environment, where it operates, whether it invests its profit or supports charitable causes.

And last, but not least, CSR is about employees, whom progressive companies view as their most valuable asset.

"That is why it would be rather unusual if we did not pay attention to CSR," Mazag told The Slovak Spectator.

Strategie always chooses stories that have a higher informational value than PR content, Mazag said.

Of course, he quipped, this is usually after it's been edited and all the superlatives taken out.

Mazag said his experience shows that companies that follow CSR principles are often more open about other topics as well, and willing to acknowledge problems. Paradoxically, this can be a way for it to stand out in customers' eyes, he added.

CSR projects that a company deliberately communicates to the public qualify as PR activity, Mazag said. However, that doesn't necessarily make it bad, he added.

"I know from personal experience that larger companies are not after PR, but looking to engage in three main areas: employees, community, and the environment," Mazag said. "CSR is definitely more about modern management than PR."

Mazag said he is a bit surprised that the media and companies often present a very narrow view of CSR as being about environmental or charitable topics, instead of focusing on the entire role it plays in the company's management.

For example, in the area of human resources, CSR can be applied in hiring and retaining good employees, he said.

"A great but underused opportunity for companies is taking advantage of CSR to get ahead of the competition and creating uniqueness by, for example, employing handicapped people, running an eco-friendly operation or attracting a modern customer," he said.

Lukáš Fila, deputy editor-in-chief of the Sme daily, said the newspaper doesn't have a strict policy on publishing CSR stories.

"We have a case-to-case approach to the activities of both public and private corporations," Fila said. "The rule is simple - if we feel something is newsworthy, we write about it. The same goes for using company names and brands. If we feel this information is relevant to the reader, we have no problem including it."

Fila said he sees corporate responsibility as being about the relationship a company has with its employees, its business partners, and the environment.

"These are things that rarely appear in the news and the company's primary motivation for doing them should be their sense of responsibility, not its PR strategy," he added. "Just like the average person behaves responsibly not because they hope to get media coverage, or inspire others to do the same, but because they feel it is their responsibility."

Petr Šabata, editor-in-chief of the Pravda daily, said that his newspapers is rather cautious about CSR articles.

"We always carefully consider how important the information is and whether it's useful for the reader," he said. "It is not enough if something is portrayed as altruistic and big-hearted."

Topic: Corporate Responsibility


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