Good, and Good for You

At Boston College, companies take the measure of social responsibility.
Marie LeoneAugust 1, 2003

Executives at Fairchild Semiconductor declared last month that the company would “get the lead out” — literally. The high-tech manufacturer is converting all its product-package coatings to lead-free finishes. Such measures “foster a clean environment and provide superior customer service,” said one company executive.

Officials at Kraft Foods are cleaning up, too. The company plans to reduce the amount of artery-clogging trans-fatty acids in Kraft products — especially the cheesy ones. In addition, Kraft intends to shrink portion sizes, reduce sugar content, and stop flogging its products to school children, all to help the nation curb its growing obesity problem.

Kraft’s declaration was made in advance of a federal government’s ruling that requires food manufacturers to list levels of trans-fatty acids on product labels by 2006. Some skeptics say that Kraft, and other companies such as Frito-Lay and McDonald’s, are doing nothing more than trying to head off customer lawsuits; others maintain that the executives simply recognize the ROI of good corporate citizenship. Either way, there’s no shortage of executive interest in developing strong programs that foster corporate social responsibility.

“It will be interesting to watch Kraft’s stock price and other financial indicators,” says Cheryl Kiser, director of marketing and membership at The Center for Corporate Citizenship, part of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “Clearly, their intent is to address global health issues, but they decided to do it with a carrot, not a stick.”

Other carrot-wielding executives are also embracing the corporate citizenship movement — some of them at the center, which has been advocating corporate social responsibility (CSR) for the past 20 years. The center guides and educates management about CSR in four distinct ways: executive education, regularly scheduled roundtables and teleconferences, research projects, and consulting services.

Some of the most popular courses in 2003 include “Building a Corporate Citizenship Vision and Strategy,” as well as other strategy development sessions. Strategy, along with measurement and evaluation, and communications and branding of corporate citizenship, round out the center’s top three areas of interest, says David Abdow, director of executive education.

What are the privileges of membership in the center, beyond the customary discount for executive education programs? Positive bottom-line results, says IBM’s Ann Cramer, who adds that she’s been involved with the center for as long as it’s been around. Cramer, Big Blue’s director of corporate community relations and public affairs, talks intently about the triple bottom line that IBM pursues: economic, environmental, and social value. For instance, she points out that the company’s Learning Village initiative was based on findings that emerged from grants given to school organizations through IBM’s Reinventing Education initiative. Learning Village is a product for educators that was co-developed with Dublin-based Riverdeep Group and runs on IBM’s WebSphere application server.

Ann Pomykal, director of corporate affairs for Texas Instruments, is particularly interested in the link between strategy and tactics, and in measuring results. Recently she’s focused on the center’s benchmarking research that gauges how companies articulate and report CSR. “It’s a hot topic in Europe,” she says, and it’s fast making its way to the United States. She explains that many public-affairs managers are too busy to check the ROI or cycle time of CSR projects, so best practices and metrics would go a long way toward helping build and implement the right strategy.

Pomykal applauds the center’s holistic approach: “The programs are bigger than any one class,” emphasizes the TI executive. Center members who take the “Vision and Strategy” course might also participate in traditional conferences and complimentary teleconferences on similar topics, or they might work with a research team that’s developing, say, practical standards for global CSR.

CSR has gone from the margins to the mainstream, contends Kiser, who notes that 320 companies — including many from the Fortune 1,000 — have become members of the center. Or as IBM’s Cramer jokes, CSR is not just T-shirts and balloons anymore.

Indeed, Abdow stresses that the community affairs role has developed into a professional function, and that the executive in charge is customarily a director or vice president. The function has moved beyond the human resources department, he maintains, settling in any number of other corporate enclaves, such as investor relations, corporate governance, marketing, and communications.

Billy Brittingham, the center’s assistant director of executive education, notes that managers can choose between strategic courses, such as “Corporate Citizenship in the Context of Local Operations,” and tactical classes, such as “Creating a Signature Program” and “Diffusing Anger, Building Trust.”

The programs are not about crisis management or public relations campaigns, asserts Kiser: “PR firms jumped on the corporate citizenship bandwagon because they witnessed the damage that bad management can inflict upon a company’s reputation.” But the bottom line, says Kiser, is that the center focuses on integrated strategies that include “corporate citizenship as a means to sustain the business.”

Building a Corporate Citizenship Vision and Strategy” will be presented in Washington, D.C., on October 1-3 and in Boston on April 28-30, 2004.