The Language of CSR: What Your Words Say About Your Company

The playwright Tom Stoppard once said, “Words are sacred… if you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little…” Upon examining and collecting the annual CSR reports of Fortune’s top 100 companies in an effort to observe trends and common practices, we couldn’t help but take note of the language and terms often used by top companies to describe their CSR efforts. CSR is most often used as an umbrella term for sustainability, corporate philanthropy and employee volunteerism initiatives.

The language surrounding CSR can be manipulated and utilized in various ways in this respect to highlight certain aspects of a CSR program. Use of language also helps companies align their CSR efforts with the core values of their corporate brand. This can make for consistent and compelling campaigns that companies can continue to build in the future, and it all starts with choosing a proper name and title for the noble efforts being made as an entire company. Words hold significant meaning based on context, usage, setting, etc. Therefore, with Stoppard’s credo in mind, when a company chooses terminology for their social responsibility efforts, it’s important those words are not only well chosen, but chosen in a way that emphasizes their values and mission as a company.

Community

According to Webster’s dictionary, a community is defined as a unified body of individuals, a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.  In other words, a community is a group or society, helping each other. The word “community” is derived from the Old French communité which is derived from the Latin communitas (cum, “with/together” + munus, “gift”), a broad term for fellowship or organized society. One of the most popular terms, 25% of the Fortune 100 use the word “community” in the description of their CSR initiatives, including Bank of America, Cardinal Health, Dell, General Motors, and Kraft Foods. These companies connote a perception of friendliness, approachability and community involvement in their use of the term.

Social Responsibility

A social relation or interaction refers to a relationship between two or more people, tending to be cooperative and interdependent in nature. It is derived from the Latin word socialis meaning companion, ally, or associate. Responsibility implies a moral, legal, or mental accountability for a task, implying a sense of trustworthiness. The term social responsibility is arguably the most commonly used word used in relation to corporate philanthropy and employee volunteerism. This fact is proved by its use in the term “Corporate Social Responsibility” alone. The word social immediately connotes relations between people, therefore adding to the idea of caring about the welfare of other human beings in a society. Of the top 100 Fortune companies, nearly every single one uses the word social in their CSR programs. The term implies a commitment to the greater good of society, as not only a testament to caring for the welfare of others, but as a duty of the company.

Mission

A pre-established objective or purpose carried out by a group of people, a specific task meant to be completed by sending a group to act on a purpose. Derived from the Latin word mittere meaning to send. A mission is often a task that will be completed by any means necessary, and for this reason it is often used by companies to describe all CSR and sustainability efforts as a whole, labeled as “Our Mission” or “Mission and Values. ” Fortune 100 companies such as Lowe’s, Aetna, and Caterpillar use the term in headlining CSR campaigns and programs. When used in the context of CSR, mission connotes a more serious, practical, and determined initiative.

Vision

The act or power of sensing with the eyes, a thought, concept, or object formed by the imagination or simply something seen. A vision often describes the way we wish something to be, rather than the way it currently is, making it the perfect word to describe a better world through corporate social responsibility efforts.  When used by companies, the word connotes a loftier, more theoretical, forward-looking perception of CSR efforts.

Social Investing

To spend or devote time and effort for future advantage or benefit. Social investing is a term commonly used in the context of CSR, as the efforts being made are not to benefit current generations, but rather future generations, making it a thorough umbrella term for sustainability and social responsibility efforts alike. It is an investment, meaning a commitment, being made as opposed to a short-term initiative. In other words, the term connotes a feeling that the company is in it for the long haul. Companies such as Comcast and Prudential use the phrase to title their efforts, pointing to a long-term, intelligent, and strategic commitment.

Culture

The arts, customs, habits, and norms that characterize a particular society or nation. The beliefs, values, behaviors, and material objects that constitute a peoples way of life and society. Culture is a word used in the corporate world relating not only to the internal conduct of the company, but to the commitment to a great good that directly relates back to the image a company attempts to create. Culture points to the way in which a company conducts itself within the context of a larger society and community. It connotes an intangible yet hugely impactful view of CSR, in which the philosophy behind it is ingrained into the company itself.

Engagement

Meaning an emotional involvement or commitment, engagement is used in the context of CSR as a way of describing how a company wishes to engage their employees, customers, executives, shareholders, and communities into their CSR initiatives as it takes more than just one person to make a difference; it takes the engagement and commitment of many. Walt Disney, State Farm Insurance, and United Continental Holdings use the word engagement or involvement to describe their initiatives. The use of the word engagement conjures a collective and active group effort towards achieving a greater good.

Integrity

The concept behind integrity involves a consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. The word “integrity” stems from the Latin adjective integer meaning whole or complete. In this context, integrity is the inner sense of “wholeness” deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. Integrity in the context of CSR means to not only commit to the programs and efforts, but to do so consistently and completely. Integrity is what can lead to real change, as it implies a moral and honest obligation.

How does your company use language to communicate its CSR efforts and what do those words say about your brand?

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