What Do The French Have to Say About CSR?
I guess it is the topic of the week. The French President François Hollande is currently on an official visit in the United-States, jointly calling for a climate deal with President Barack Obama. The French National CSR Association (or “Plateforme Nationale de la RSE” as we call it) has been asking the European Union to mandate a European CSR reporting regulation, largely inspired by its own CSR regulation (NRE in 2001 and Article 225-Grenelle II in 2010). This morning, I attended a CSR event in Paris organized by a French consultancy, Sircome, that presented the results of its latest study on the main trends in CSR Communication. This could be the occasion to ask: What do the French have to say about CSR?
The study released this morning by Sircome is a good starting point. Carried out as a discussion with the 30 most influential Communication & CSR experts in France, it summarizes the following key trends:
1/ Complex issues:
Sustainability topics are becoming more and more complex, and therefore becoming even more difficult to communicate about. Consumers don’t understand Scopes 1/2/3 or life-cycle analysis, and the increasing number of regulations, labels and rankings is not really helping. Sustainability and communication professionals sometimes feel consumers are not sensible to environmental and social topics and don’t pay attention to their campaigns.
2/ Disillusioned (yet informed) consumers:
Ironically, most consumers are indeed informed about environmental and social stakes but are disillusioned. Social media and smartphones give them the perfect tool to be heard by companies, exchange information on products’ responsibility and collaborate, however they don’t trust corporations anymore, especially when it comes to Sustainability. Communication, advertising or marketing are seen as manipulative tools and consumers feel like they’re not valuable and that their opinion doesn’t count. This lack of understanding between parties is the same cliché: corporations regret that consumers are not “listening”, while consumers reply that they don’t “trust” companies.
3/ The Digital Revolution
New tools from the Web 2.0 are certainly transforming society through new communication and innovative channels (to share, rent, repair or sell products and services). This is an opportunity to bring stakeholders and corporations together to increase dialogue and communicate. Companies should anticipate this trend as it will keep growing drastically in the following years, and of course, adapt their communication strategies.
4/ Sustainability is still (and only) a top-management issue
Ten years ago, a company could be proud to have a Sustainability manager, because it was the proof that environmental and social stakes were taken into account. Today, this is not enough, and unfortunately, most of the French experts note that Sustainability is limited to the CSR department and not implemented throughout all operations. CSR is still seen as an obligation instead of a value creation process where the whole company could benefit.
5/ The failure of CSR reports
Originally made for stakeholders’ engagement and dialogue, most CSR reports are “little monsters” that only CSR experts, agencies and consultants want to read. Impersonal images, dizzy figures, exaggerated positivism…it is far from the reality that most stakeholders (employees, customers, and partners) encounter in their daily lives. The old approach simply doesn’t work anymore and is not appropriate to the way people consume information today.
6/ The end of fairytales
French CSR experts condemn the brands who are falsely surfing on the Sustainability marketing wave, or more commonly called greenwashing. When it is not based on true facts and figures, storytelling is perceived as an attempt to turn one’s attention away from the actual environmental or social impacts. Sometimes, content and tools used are simply not appropriate to their audiences and cause awkwardness.
Here are the main challenges that were discussed this morning…but I won’t let you finish this article thinking “French people always complain about everything”. This time, I’m proud to say that the experts in this group came up with a list of strategic propositions to face these challenges:
- Integrate CSR to your global strategy: Your CSR actions must be deeply correlated to your company’s overall strategy, and be connected to the products or services you’re offering. Use co-construction with NGOs or professional associations if you lack expertise on specific issues.
- Ask yourself questions: Open up to new ideas, new business models, new solutions and please avoid preconception.
- Be more honest and creative in your communication: Your Sustainability communication must be sincere and present verifiable facts and figures. Don’t stick to your successes: highlight your challenges as well (it will improve your credibility) but don’t forget to be creative and avoid placing the blame on consumers.
- And be more emotional: Use storytelling to illustrate your involvements and present concrete projects that can talk to your stakeholders.
- Involve and train your employees: Before communicating to your external stakeholders, you should make sure that your most important ambassadors are on board: your employees. If they’re not sensible and responsive to your speech, don’t hesitate to invest in internal trainings.
- Engage your stakeholders & reinvent your report: Make sure your stakeholders are heard through social media and 2.0 tools. Invest in an online CSR report to increase your readership and enable real conversations. Remember that your stakeholders can help you identify your material aspects and find innovative solutions to your challenges.
- Invest in knowledge: Analyzing what your stakeholders think, discovering what and where your impact is most important or how your last campaign is perceived may look like useless investments at first. But they’re not! They will help you define your Sustainability strategy and polish your CSR communication.
If you’d like to know more about CSR & Communication in France (and you have the chance to “parler français”), I invite you to take a look at the ComRSE study. If you’re on Twitter, you can also follow these 13 French-speaking CSR experts that the blogger Julien Goy recommends for you! I’ve had the honor to be listed, and I’ll always be glad to say “Bonjour”!