Visit any corporate website, and the word responsibility is likely in the main navigation, sitting beside “About us.” Corporate [social] responsibility has become a favorite of companies looking to address the impacts of their business on people and the environment. And many consumer goods companies are using responsible to differentiate their products from an environmental or social standpoint. It’s the most blue-chip, steady-Eddie, stand-up word in the CR communicator’s word palette, and yet it has a downside too.
Responsible is great for earning respect, but it’s a pretty buttoned-up word. It even sounds sober. Responsible is effective when talking about corporate ethics or making sound investments, but falls down when we want to pump people up.
Words such as responsible, ethical and sustainable are often used interchangeably. From the average person’s standpoint, responsible has so many possible meanings, it’s become almost meaningless.
Responsible is a state of being, rather than a state of doing. So it works to convey self-regulation, but it doesn’t necessarily signal when a company is innovating or proactively pushing itself to change how it does business.
Companies in controversial industries like tobacco have publicized their CR efforts, opening the door for skeptics to question the credibility of any company that uses responsible. That climate makes it tough for truly responsible organizations to craft a believable message.
Corporate responsibility expresses a number of ideas all at once: A company’s environmental and social commitments, ethics and corporate governance models, and their obligation to their stakeholders. Just one word can carry a lot of weight and meaning.
Responsibility is such a grown-up word. It conveys thoughtfulness, seriousness and steadiness. People might perceive a responsible company to be more honest and respectable. Consumers might believe that an environmentally responsible product was made with extra care.
Substantiate claims of responsibility by providing evidence. Bring in third-party experts to reinforce your CR message. If your company has something great to talk about, be proud and back it up.
Sometimes you need to be more than just responsible. Sometimes you have to be passionate, driven, game changing. Modulate your mood and tone depending on your communications mission.
Save responsible for moments when no other word will do. If you can use a different word that more closely expresses what you mean, do it! Craft extensive word palettes to keep your CR vocabulary fresh.
Even when it makes sense to use materiality (like in your GRI-based CR report), apply it selectively, and stick with natural, conversational language the rest of the time.
The general concept of corporate social responsibility existed long before the term itself. Howard Bowen is often credited with coining the term in Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, published in 1953. He defined social responsibility as “the obligations of businessmen to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of objectives and values of our society.” But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term corporate social responsibility came into common usage.
Got a word that doesn’t work, but can’t think of another way to say what you mean? Leave us a comment and we just might add it to a future release. Problem solved!