Since the second half of 2015, CB has run over 40 features on multiple sectors such as banking and finance, retail, real estate, FMCG and healthcare, not to forget the non-profit sector. One of the key parts of any such article is to reach out to the relevant organisation and ask them a set of questions based on available data and literature of their work. CSR in this country has become such a loaded term, especially after the 2013 Act came into force, that any media company that wishes to report on it in an insightful and ethical manner needs to proceed cautiously when it comes to evaluating the work done. Else, ‘balanced’ features can easily devolve into a PR-style exercise.
Unfortunately (but maybe not terribly surprising), most organisations simply refuse to engage in any meaningful way. While there are a few who are always forthcoming in their responses, many either refuse to even communicate or find several ways to prevaricate and evade the questions. Some promise to reply but then disappear without any trace despite follow-ups, and many claim to be too busy and direct us to their websites and annual reports, information that we are already privy to. CB had earlier published a short feature on this problem with a list of three companies who at least until then had yet to participate in any of our stories despite multiple requests and follow-ups.
In this article, we are delving deeper into this subject. We are not passing judgements or making a biased commentary. Facts will be stated based on our own experience as a medium in this domain.
Companies that engage and those that don’t
For simplicity’s sake, we have segregated companies according to categories that are self-explanatory. Please note that we have not included companies or NGOs whom we have reached out to only once.
Companies that never respond to any query
RIL, IndusInd, HSBC, HDFC, CitiBank, Standard Chartered, Godrej Properties and Consumer Divisions, Bharti Foundation, Tata AIG, Ashoka Buildcon, Maruti, TVS, Bajaj, Audi, P&G, Amul, Asian Paints, Marico, Future Group, Nahar Group, V Mart, Trent Ltd, Shoppers Stop, Raymond, Provogue, Reliance Retail, Puma, Brigade Group, Hiranandani, Ansal API, Indiabulls, Max, Metlife, Manipal Hospitals, Apollo Hospitals, Cipla, Sun Pharma, Opto Circuits, Apollo Munich, Dr Reddy’s, DLF, Ansal Properties, Oberoi, IBM, Mondelez, Britannia, GAIL, ICICI Bank
Companies that promise to revert but vanish
Tata Trusts, Unilever, Future Group, Kotak, HSBC
Companies that copy-paste their reports/website content or give vague or irrelevant answers
IndusInd, HDFC, Ola, Honda, Maruti, Serum Institute, Infosys, Citi, Yes Bank, Cisco
Companies that mostly respond and seem to give genuine answers
Wockhardt, Hero, Mahindra, JK Tyre, Toyoto Kirloskar, Nestle, IndiGo, Fortis
Companies that respond sporadically and after multiple follow-ups
Yes Bank, Godrej Industries, Tata Motors, ICICI Lombard
Companies that participated once despite being contacted for multiple stories
Microsoft, Axis Bank, K Raheja, Mercedes, Dabur, Agro Tech, Vodafone, HCL
Suffice it to say, reaching out to companies and eliciting acceptable responses is no easy task. It takes multiple emails, follow-ups over texts and calls, escalating to senior management (and sometimes even that isn’t enough), and curtailing our own queries to get some companies to respond. There are a few who are quite prompt and try and contribute substantially towards the story. But those are in a minority. The CB experience is that when asked some moderately tough questions, most companies prefer to keep mum, ignore, or come up with some or the other excuse. At best they may come up with vague, bureaucratic replies, especially when the queries are in response to their own press releases.
The CB experience
Few examples are worth quoting here to give the reader an idea of the kind of interactions that usually occur when writing a feature. Maruti regularly sends out press releases on their many CSR initiatives, including how their team swept up medals at the India Skills Competition 2018. And indeed, browsing through the sustainability report, the company seems to be extremely active in the CSR and sustainability space, as any auto company should be. While their PR agency has responded to CB’s follow-up questions to a couple of such releases, the company’s spokespeople themselves are yet to engage with us. Which explains the fact that Maruti has never participated in any of our feature articles.
For instance, the article on road safety had inputs from multiple companies including the auto sector. However, Maruti wanted to do a standalone article on the flawed driver-licensing process in India and sent a (unsolicited) one-pager with their opinion on this issue instead of replying to the fairly straightforward set of questions. Despite follow-ups, we did not hear back from the company.
Matters got worse when in the course of writing a dedicated feature on Maruti’s CSR and sustainability we sent the company a detailed set of questions based on their annual reports and public information. As always, this was to give the company a chance to present their case for the work done, obtain facts and figures that were not available in public domains, and clarify our own doubts. However, Maruti kept mute and failed to reply to any of our emails. It took a few phone calls and another round of emails before they deigned to issue a statement, the gist of which was to, ironically, refer to their annual reports. Needless to say, Maruti still hasn’t engaged with CB in any productive manner.
Another interesting example is Bharti Foundation. They too are yet to participate in any CB feature. This includes a failure to reply to questions for a press release sent by their own team. For one story, they stated that since they were in the middle of a change in team structure and their CEO and VP were travelling, they would be unable to send their responses. For the piece on ‘CSR challenges faced by organisations’, the head of partnerships and communication asked us a bunch of questions such as ‘the context of the article, other players to be featured in this write-up, the big questions or points of debate that the articles intends to raise.’ Then she asked if it would be possible to get an interview of the Foundation’s CEO/COO or a cover story on their ‘phenomenal work in education and sanitation’ published on CB. When explained that the article would be focusing on overall challenges and accordingly incorporate inputs from different organisations, she replied that they were solely interested in getting front-page interviews of their CEO/COO or exclusive feature articles on their organisation. Not surprisingly, the Foundation didn’t end up answering our three basic questions.
But Bharti Foundation isn’t the only one that would rather have a flattering piece on their organisation than answer simple questions, such as those related to impact assessment and medium- to long-term goals. We had already covered our experience with Canon and Infosys while writing the ‘sexual harassment at workplace’ piece. Similarly, Essar Foundation, after multiple follow-ups, wanted to do a ‘story-based and human interest-centered piece that focuses on a single project or programme in a particular thematic area’, instead of an in-depth look at their CSR programmes and the impact made. We never received the answers to our questions.
The other kinds of deflecting tactics include: the spokesperson/CEO is travelling, the organisation is busy with some event or important work, promising to reply and going AWOL, claiming that they never received any email, and directing to the annual reports or their website. Wipro is one instance that this author remembers particularly well, more so because the company publishes a comprehensive annual sustainability report and seems to take its CSR work quite seriously. One was hopeful that they, at least, would be forthcoming about their programme’s impact and engage in a candid discussion. However, it required many emails before we got a response where they stated that they would not be able to participate since they were ‘in the middle of annual disclosures and other related activities’. After whittling down the number of questions at our end, they asked us to browse through their sustainability report, sent a few decks on their CSR programmes (but didn’t address our specific questions), and a couple of one-liners on goals and learning.
Responses, or non-responses, like these are fairly commonplace, as it would be for any newspaper or magazine that asks tough but fair questions. CB usually offers field visits too, as this is the best way to assess impact and foster long-term and objective engagement with organisations. Many don’t take it up—the reasons are best discerned by the reader.
The examples quoted here are not meant to single out any organisation but to factually present our experiences interacting with them. For companies that are transactional when it comes to CSR and don’t claim to be doing transformational work, the expectations are naturally low and one expects them to dodge questions (even though their approach has its own problems—but that’s a separate issue). For large organisations with no dearth of funds or resources, it is only fair that their claims are scrutinised minutely. Solely relying on annual reports or press releases is pointless; one might as well open a public relations firm instead of purporting to be a neutral platform that cares about sustainability.
And NGOs are equally guilty of such evasions and sidestepping. Some, like Action Aid India, provide adequate responses without much to-do; others like the Aga Khan Foundation want to review the final draft, ostensibly seeking to give their approval before any such piece is published. Then there are some such as Akshay Patra whose press releases come at the speed of at least one a month, but send them any query on those and you will be left waiting without end.
Is there a solution to do this? Can things possibly improve? The answer, unfortunately, doesn’t lie with us. Perhaps when organisations start looking at CSR as more than an image-enhancing exercise or a year-end tick in the box and are genuinely open to feedback, one would see genuine engagements from them. Right now, the evidence is that CSR in this country is yet to evolve to a place where it is a part of the corporate DNA, an integral part of the organisation’s holistic culture, and given equal importance with revenues and profits. There are, of course, some that are, more often than not, willing to engage in good faith and welcome queries and assessments. The hope is that their numbers will grow in the coming years and CB will start receiving as many honest and relevant responses as it receives favourable press releases.