Doing Good, Well: Insights from AT&T's "It Can Wait" CSR Campaign

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an integral component to building a strong, positive company reputation. Many major corporations today have dedicated webpages outlining their CSR goals, objectives and focus areas, and issue news releases announcing grant awards or the launch of new campaigns. While these can be effective tactics for spreading the word about a business’ good deeds, there’s a noticeable disconnect between the volume of announcements a company puts out about their CSR efforts and what actually gets picked up as news by the media. In the business media landscape, where news about deals, products and legal issues frequently dominates the conversation, it is not often you see consistent narratives about a company’s CSR and giving strategies. So the challenge is: how do you get the public and the media to notice the “good deeds” that your company is doing? For a terrific example of how this is done, take a look at AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign.

The campaign, a part of the telecommunication leader’s CSR objectives, is focused on “educating the public – especially teens – on the dangers of texting and driving,” a problem that has resulted from a misuse of mobile technology. They execute the campaign by using multiple channels to deliver the message, from the traditional news release, to PSA-style videos featuring CEO Randall Stephenson, to encouraging customers to pledge not to text and drive. News of this campaign is widespread, seen on television and the web, and has been picked up by major national outlets.

As a part of the research we at Hillenby use to determine a company’s influence, we looked at media coverage of AT&T in the first three quarters of 2013 and found that 7% of positive stories about AT&T in the top five U.S. newspapers and 33% of positive stories about AT&T in Associated Press (AP) distribution were about “It Can Wait” alone. Those stories helped boost AT&T’s overall positive coverage compared to its competitors: In the first three quarters of 2013, 48% of AT&T’s combined newspaper and AP media coverage was positive, while its two nearest competitors came in at 28% positive and 40% positive. What is it about this particular campaign that helps it cross over from a typical company CSR announcement to an attractive news topic? Here are some takeaways from “It Can Wait” that could help your company’s CSR efforts make that jump:

  1. Alignment with your business: This one seems like a no-brainer, yet it is too often neglected when developing CSR strategies. For AT&T, for example, it makes the most sense for their CSR efforts to be related to telecommunications technology (some of their other efforts focus on STEM education and donating wireless services to lower-income communities). Using the expertise and resources that are already available to your business will not only give your efforts credibility, but you’ll be able to make the biggest impact.
  2. Make it specific: “It Can Wait” addresses a very distinct problem – texting while driving. Instead of focusing generally on people misusing a product, or driving safety, the combination of these two activities paints a clear picture of a problem that families have experienced and can relate to. This type of specificity stands out to reporters who are looking for a story that is newsworthy.
  3. Be a leader: AT&T was first out of the gate with this type of high profile campaign around texting and driving. Leading the pack with the content of your campaign is key, but getting other companies on board is even better. After the campaign’s launch, AT&T got other industry leaders like Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile to join their effort (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-texting-20130514,0,896604.story). This type of industry backing serves as a positive peer review of your work, and when multiple companies or partners get involved on one project, the media is much more likely to take interest and give credit where credit is due.
  4. Back it up with data: Like the saying, “numbers don’t lie,” data can add concrete validity to your CSR efforts. For example, AT&T conducted a survey about texting and driving (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/teen-drivers-are-texting-just-like-their-parents/2012/05/13/gIQA8raQNU_story.html), which is often quoted in media coverage of the campaign. Surveys and polls like this one position the company as a thought leader that has new and insightful information to share with the public.

Keeping these tips in mind when crafting CSR strategies and promotional efforts will help build credibility for your efforts and strengthen your company’s reputation while amplifying the difference you can make.