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Why You Should Let Storytelling Shape Your CSR Strategy

June 24, 2019 • Caelin Niehoff

If you take a look at corporate social responsibility (CSR) trends for 2019, you won’t find storytelling on the short list of considerations for anyone pursuing a CSR initiative. Commentators are focusing on the relevancy of CSR, global citizenship and sustainable supply chains, but they’re forgetting a key component to the success of socially conscious initiatives: the ability to make them persuasive. In fact, the words “storytelling” and “communications” are completely absent from gold-standard manuals like the U.N.’s Guide to Corporate Sustainability: Shaping a Sustainable Future. That’s a problem.

If “long-term change begins with a company’s leadership,” as the guide prescribes, then you had better have a leader who can effectively communicate the change that your organization envisions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the social sector. History’s greatest change agents are also its greatest storytellers, in social movements and in corporations, including Richard Branson at Virgin, Bill Gates at Microsoft, and Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway.

The current footprint of your organization’s social impact may be a far cry from a global movement, but strategic storytelling can ensure your team’s approach to CSR is authentic and effective.

Green Washing Won’t Clean Your Dirty Laundry

Purpose-driven organizations should create CSR strategies that advance the central objective(s) behind their purpose. A CSR campaign that deviates from your purpose can feel superficial—to employees and to consumers Today’s communicators need an authentic approach to CSR, and there’s no better place to look for inspiration than your heritage.

In an age of radical transparency, communicators may hesitate to dig through their corporate archives for fear of finding the ghosts of your company’s past (including antiquated methodologies or possibly troublesome practices). Remember that there’s a difference between an organization that covers up its mistakes and an organization that learns from its missteps. If your organization’s purpose is pure, then your history is more like the forgiving—yet insistent—voice emanating from your GPS system when you miss a turn.

Piles of empty pesticide cans were a common sight in the 1970s. Your organization’s past may be a part of a much larger historical narrative that continues to shape our country’s understanding of social issues like pollution.

The danger points, climaxes and all-hope-is-lost moments from your past are what make a compelling story, and you can use that story as a catalyst for the future.

The future of CSR will demand more than just giving money to the charity of your choice. Communicators can future-proof CSR plans by demonstrating how the story of your organization’s purpose and the story of your organization’s impact on society are one and the same. Consider 136-year-old supermarket chain Kroger and its audacious Zero Hunger | Zero Waste campaign:

Kroger’s #ZeroHungerZeroWaste plan includes bold commitments that reflect our Purpose: to Feed the Human Spirit. We are counting on our associates, customers, partners and other stakeholders to help shape innovative solutions and scalable best practices as our work evolves. Because when it comes to hunger and waste, zero is the only acceptable answer.

Kroger, a national chain, can have a major and direct impact on America’s food system. Storytelling enables Kroger to take complex issues like hunger and food waste and make them digestible for a consumer audience. It has taken the campaign a step further by equipping employees, customers and partners with storytelling tools designed to spread the word so more people understand Kroger’s plan.

You’ve Been Good Longer Than You Think

Telling stories inspired by your heritage allows you to codify the long-term commitment your organization has made to improving your industry and communities. You can tell these stories by putting the socially conscious themes from your organizational history at the forefront of your CSR campaign.

Kroger Group Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jessica Adelman opens the Zero Hunger | Zero Waste video with the line, “Kroger’s been involved in hunger for well over 100 years.” Kroger announced its campaign to end hunger and food waste in 2017, but the organization’s concern with hunger as a social issue and the relevancy of hunger to its purpose dates back to its founding year, 1883. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste feels like an evolution of Kroger’s purpose.

Whirlpool’s relationship with Habitat for Humanity began in 1999, with more than 9,000 employees volunteering annually with Habitat through 2018.

Just because your campaign is new doesn’t mean your storytelling has to start from scratch. For Whirlpool Corporation’s 100th anniversary, History Factory created an extensive collection of stories that could be used to inform and inspire Whirlpool’s workforce. The collection included stories about longstanding partnerships with philanthropic groups and demonstrated the company’s early involvement in communities.

Whirlpool’s history of partnering with Habitat for Humanity laid the foundation for Whirlpool to further its relationship with the nonprofit. Organizations can extend stories of service by returning to their legacy partners to participate in new service opportunities.

Going Beyond the Sustainability Report

What CSR, annual and sustainability reports offer in transparency, they often lack in cohesion. Digital storytelling is already transforming the way we communicate corporate values—and our ability to act on them. Ford is pairing its sustainability report with multimedia elements. Communicators need to bring data and storytelling together. When facts and figures are set against the backdrop of a compelling story, they can create a call to action.

Reach a larger audience with a more persuasive message when you use creative storytelling methods. In addition to visual platforms like video and virtual reality, books can be an immersive experience for brand loyalists. Patagonia achieved this experience with a revised and expanded edition of the publication Let My People Go Surfing by founder Yvon Chouinard. Patagonia keeps this storytelling vehicle relevant by tethering the book to the organization’s current campaigns, including The Cleanest Line blog and the Worn Wear program.

Storytelling is a vital part of any CSR campaign that aims to be persuasive enough to bring about change. Today’s corporate communicators can create campaigns with dramatic social impact by taking hold of their organization’s narrative.

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