Companies should be careful who they tell about their community investment work, and how they present their good deeds

The role of community investment in corporate communications is evolving. Some companies are wary of talking publicly about their community investment activity, preferring to focus on their core business activities. Google’s director of communications, D-J Collins, says: “I prefer to spend my time talking to the press about the benefits of search, YouTube, Google maps and the rest.”

At BP there is a definite focus on communicating that its responsibility is much more than community investment. “Rather it is about all the things we do in our operations that contribute to long-term sustainability of the business and the society and environment we operate in,” says corporate responsibility director Sheldon Daniel.

Other companies continue to use community investment as a basis for communication, but are becoming more focused and strategic in the way they do this. Companies surveyed for this report agreed that when talking about community work, it is best to focus on specific audiences, and to do more than simply report what a company is doing.

Target groups

Community investment provides a valuable talking point when engaging with specialist stakeholders such as non-governmental organisations and governments, companies say. Microsoft, for example, works with governments at both national and European levels on worker skills. Community affairs director for EMEA Sylvie Laffarge says: “We work closely with government affairs colleagues, giving them examples of where we’ve affected employability in a particular community, to help support their agenda.”

Royal Bank of Scotland’s head of community investment, Stephen Moir, describes the bank’s work on financial inclusion as “a great stakeholder-influencing tool, especially when the government agenda is now more than ever about equipping people with the skills to manage their money”.

Despite Google’s reluctance to talk about community investment, it acknowledges its value when building relationships with particular audiences. If an NGO is concerned about the use of YouTube for bullying, Google is able to respond with reference to its work with Beatbullying.

While BP may be concentrating on communicating its core business activities rather than its community investment initiatives, its work on human rights, transparency and stimulating enterprise helps build relationships with an often hostile NGO sector.

Engage consumers

If community investment communications are targeting consumers, this requires innovation and creative thinking. Straightforward reporting of a company’s activities is unlikely to engage the media or to have much impact on consumers and can, in some instances, be negatively interpreted as cynical PR.

One solution is to generate interesting content rather than simply talking about the activities a company is engaged in. Vodafone is currently working to learn why some methods of connecting with young people aged 16-25 succeed where others fail. “In a way we’re creating our own policy stance by some of the work we’ve funded, so that ideally, in the same way that people turn to Nationwide for what’s happening in the housing market, they might eventually turn to us to find out what the current issues are around young people,” explains Sarah Shillito, head of the Vodafone UK Foundation.

Effective communications should be fully integrated into the community investment activity itself. This means that communications forms part of the activity rather than being added as an afterthought. This is worlds away from the traditional model of telling consumers what you’ve done, and expecting plaudits for it.

This strategy is evident in Procter & Gamble’s One Pack One Vaccine Pampers initiative, which is part of its relationship with Unicef. For every specially marked pack of nappies sold, P&G promises to donate the cost of a tetanus vaccine for a woman and her newborn children to Unicef. This programme has already provided 40m vaccines and this is expected to reach 70m by the end of 2008. Because it directly involves consumers, they immediately feel a strong connection to the cause. And there is no need for additional communications because P&G’s involvement is clear from the outset.

Another powerful strategy is to offer consumers the chance to get involved in some aspect of community investment. Vodafone is running a programme called World of Difference, which gives members of the public the chance to be funded to work for a charity of their choice for a year. This approach works because it gives the consumer more than information, it is offering them the opportunity to take part. This is a much more subtle and effective way of communicating values to consumers through community investment than simply telling them about it.

Procter & Gamble: living, learning and thriving

Heritage Founded in 1837. Tradition of philanthropy and employee community involvement activities. First group-wide initiative, Live, Learn and Thrive, established in 2005.
Community investment structure - Activities brought together under the Live, Learn and Thrive single corporate cause in 2005. Includes global programmes and brand-led cause-related marketing campaigns.
- Country-level volunteer support, local partnerships and donations, largely supported by and aligned with Live, Learn and Thrive.
Issues of focus - Improving the lives of children up to 13, through health (Live), education (Learn) and skills development (Thrive).
Scale of community investment spend - $125m worldwide in 2006-07 (cash and products).
Employee volunteering - Global volunteer support programme encourages employee community involvement. Policies vary regionally. In the UK and Ireland, the employees’ charities fund matches employee donations.
Leading activity Live, Learn and Thrive programmes around the world aim to benefit more than 250 million children by 2012.
Also focuses on providing safe drinking water – more than 1bn litres to date.
Live, Learn and Thrive programmes vary by region. In countries including China, Costa Rica and India, signature programmes give children access to education; in others, including the US, Saudi Arabia and Sweden, programmes help build skills for life.

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