31 October 2017 | Dawn Ngwenya | Opinion
It has increasingly become common to read positive stories about social investment and development funded by South Africa’s large companies, a phenomenon that has only recently become popular, and seems welcomed by the public.
South African businesses, especially corporates have for decades shied away from public communications of their efforts in Corporate Social Investment (CSI), meaning that this part of their work was often little known outside of their beneficiary pool. This was largely because leaders of companies found it challenging to create authentic and meaningful stories in a tasteful way, that doesn’t come across as boasting to peers about doing good for society. And so, advertising agencies would be tasked with everything from brand positioning and product pushes, all the way to enterprise development and environmentally friendly practices, but never the taboo topic of doing good in the field of social investments.
But when and why did the change occur?
With the advent of concepts such as ‘sustainability’ as defined but the Brundtland Commission in the late 80s, and ‘the triple bottom line’, made popular by John Elkington in the 90s, it became important for companies to demonstrate to their industry counterparts that they were involved in good business practices. The pinnacle was to be able to show a healthy financial bottom line, environmentally friendly efforts, and actively uplifting the communities in which businesses operated in. This became the elusive ‘triple bottom line’.
Companies mostly began reporting about their social investments efforts within their annual reporting cycles, creating sustainable reports, or including these within integrated annual reports.
Some argue that the age of the Millennials had a lot to do with companies moving toward including CSI efforts in their marketing and communications activity plans. The reason for this is that with the volatile global socio-political environment over the past 15 years, it has become important for people to align themselves with companies that no only avoid doing harm, but those who do good – to people and the environment.
My own take is that with social media, public opinion has become easier and faster to publish far and wide, it is easy for an opinion about a company’s actions to go viral and attract scrutiny about how savoury their business practices are. Therefore, spreading the good news creates a good balance between the information that they can control by pushing it out to the media, and the opinions that develop without their influence.
What are the most prominent publications that carry stories of the impact of social investment funding in South Africa?
There is a growing group of annual instalments in major publication, that do a CSI supplement, that has information such as spend by sector, biggest corporate spenders, most impactful funders according to peers/ public. These publications include the major weekend and daily newspapers, and they offer advertising space, advertorials and paid-for corporate profiles alongside they editorial coverage they will run about the CSI sector in South Africa.
Many of the top monthly and quarterly business publications in South Africa ensure that in a year’s cycle they include an issue themed around social development, CSI, and often paring it with skills development and the BBBEE codes.
In the past three years, we have also see the emergence of digital publications that are dedicated to communicating ‘good news’ around the topics of social investment and social development. These include CSR News and Marketing CSI; and at the same time, some of the longer existing digital news sites, have developed pages that host CSI news.
In conclusion, it certainly is a good idea to communicate the social investment efforts of companies, regardless of the motive, because the result is that companies are able to connect on a deeper level with communities and demonstrate a purpose on a grander scale. This in turn inspires and engenders trust with the public, and the belief that we are all rolling up our sleeves to create a better South Africa.