Is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) just PR?

In my Corporate Strategy course that I’m taking this semester, one of the first cases we discussed looked at Syncrude and it’s CSR Program (link to document).  Through discussion of this particular case in class and some (limited) research, I’ve come to the hypothesis that for many organizations view CSR Documents nothing more than a piece of PR.

I don’t want to be misinterpreted here – CSR is important.  Businesses, like individuals, need to consider social issues and make decisions based on what is considered the ethical thing to do.  Giving back to the community, looking for ways to save energy and other issues along this vein are the sorts of decisions and actions that a company’s CSR policy will cover.  Sometimes, companies will not make the decision that falls in line with popular opinion, miss targets, etc.  I think the key for a company that is truly responsible is to admit to these ‘failures’.

Consider the Syncrude document above.  Anyone that has any exposure to the media will be able to tell you that there are omissions and/or misstatements in this document about Syncrude’s impact on society.  However, it does appear that Syncrude has done a reasonably good job of engaging the Aboriginal peoples and ensuring that they are able to co-exist with Syncrude’s operations in the area (while there are dissenting opinions on this, let’s assume my statement is true).  There are several areas that are only considered by a cursory notation in this document.  Syncrude’s Environmental impact, for example.  It appears that Syncrude’s operations has contaminated some of the water supplies in the area, but this information is not reported within this document.  This does not seem socially responsible, does it?

So, ultimately, while Syncrude is doing good works in some areas, they are failing in others.  While Syncrude may consider themselves socially responsible, it should be up to the public to determine who they feel to be socially responsible.

Organizations have every right to present documents that outline themselves in the best possible light.  I just don’t think it’s right to try and pass a document off as proof of corporate responsibility when only half the picture is included.