Why CSR Often Isn't Enough to Gain Project Approval

The article below was Published February 2, 2015 in ACC Live.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become a necessity for companies throughout the planning process for many projects, especially in the mining and energy fields. Companies seek to gain public approval for projects by including CSR benefits for the immediate community affected by the project. CSR benefits often range from community engagement strategies, such as increased employment opportunities and local involvement of small business suppliers, to major activities, such as the provision of scholarships, the building of roads, the relocation of households, etc. These benefits represent an opportunity for companies to both help raise their sustained involvement in an immediate community directly affected by a project and to positively influence stakeholders to support a project for a successful approval process.

CSR practices point companies towards maintaining strength over the long term by assuming the social responsibilities that come with large-scale projects. In the modern global climate, it has become essential for companies to engage immediate communities with CSR practices by encouraging the involvement of local investors and securing sustainable development for communities, all in an effort to win support for projects from local residents. However, CSR does not always equate to an instant positive reaction from communities. Globalization has caused these large-scale projects to garner broad audiences, requiring widespread public affairs campaigns to build support for the project and promote the resulting opportunities to communities beyond just the immediate local population. Though CSR is essential in many types of large-scale projects, it often neglects audiences and stakeholders in a broader sense at the state, regional, national and international levels.

While some residents in the immediate community may be satisfied with what companies are offering through CSR targeted specifically at their needs, companies continue to face resistance from local, state and national-level interests. Interest groups continuously become invested as stakeholders in large-scale projects, regardless of their proximity to the project. These groups might include environmental activist groups, human rights advocates and state and national lawmakers, amongst others. All communities need to be informed of a project and its benefits in order for a project to be viewed favorably enough to gain timely approval. For the successful transmission of a project’s facts and benefits to the community, any CSR effort must be accompanied by a strategic public affairs campaign to ensure the whole audience understands the potential that a project brings for advancement.

A public affairs campaign, coupled with CSR, is the winning strategy for difficult projects. Regional, state and even national campaigns in support of these projects, with advertising, social media and political campaign-style techniques are needed to build support from within and outside communities. The more citizens lean against a project, the more likely elected leaders will be to simply follow the perceived will of the people, thereby opposing the development despite a silent majority of support that may exist. There have been many areas of the globe that have seen CSR or planned CSR on projects, only to see projects defeated or moratoriums placed to prevent development. From shale gas moratoriums in Germany, Quebec, New Brunswick and New York State to iron ore mining bans in Goa, to coal seam gas banning in Queensland, Australia, projects have been derailed due to opposition, despite in many cases, strong CSR plans in place. Winning the issue locally often is not enough to show support to regional and even national elected leaders, who are often either the same people voting on a project or else they are the individuals who appointed the voting official.

Individual’s backyards are expanding to a regional, national, and even global scale. Because of this global view, more individuals in a widespread community are likely to become invested in a project’s outcome. Public affairs campaigns increase the proliferation of information to benefit the project at a grassroots level and beyond. This grassroots approach to gaining support for projects that seek to persuade both locals in the immediate community and those in the non-local, larger groups are more likely to gain support amongst stakeholders and quickly gain approval more efficiently. CSR alone is not public affairs. Rather, CSR can become an important part of a public affairs campaign to gain support for projects if interwoven into outreach. Through the use of proven public affairs campaign tactics, such as telephone identification calls, direct mailers and social media, companies can effectively spread the benefits and importance of a project, and thus gain both the immediate and larger communities’ support. When the backyard of an individual consists of more than just the immediate surroundings, companies need to take into account the influence that these larger groups have getting projects approved in a timely manner.