Are We Moving Forward? The State of Play for CSR in the Middle East (Part Two)

This is the second part of a blog I’m writing based on research undertaken by PR agency Cicero & Bernay and YouGov into the state of CSR in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Yesterday I looked at the first half of the report. Today, I’m going to share the results on employer branding, on the impact of CSR on business, and also of the pandemic on CSR. To reiterate, this is a quantitative survey, and I do have reservations on the views shared. Let’s begin!

The Impact of CSR on Employer Branding

Let’s start with the simple view shared by the majority of executives surveyed – brands/organizations that are seen as more socially responsible find it easier to both attract and retain staff. The first statement, that of “A company’s CSR activities are an important consideration for job seekers,” was agreed with by at least 60% of executives from each region. The second statement, that of “A socially responsible company is deliberately sought out by job seekers,” was also agreed to by the majority of executives (the lowest score was for the Gulf excluding Saudi and the UAE, where only 49% of executives agreed to the statement. The most interesting statement put to those surveyed was, “Employees working in a socially responsible company are more motivated than those working for other companies.” Again, the majority of executives agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. It’s clear that being a socially responsible company is seen as an advantage when it comes to employees.

The statement put to the executives was “A company’s CSR activities are an important consideration for job seekers.”

CSR Impact on Business

There were two statements on how CSR relates to business. The first was, “How do you think adopting CSR affects a company’s business overall?” The overall sentiment was agree/strongly agree, with the lowest score being 80% in the Levant (Jordan and Lebanon). The highest scores were in Saudi (92% agreed or strongly agreed) and the UAE (95% agreed or strongly agreed). The second statement put to those surveyed was, “How important is it for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?” The response was again overwhelmingly positive, with 92% agreeing or strongly agreeing that adopting CSR positively impacts a company’s business.

The question asked was “How do you think adopting CSR affects a company’s business overall?”

CSR in Practice Across MENA

We now get to the why and how. Those surveyed were asked, “Why do you think it’s important for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?” The primary response, with the exception of the Levant, was to improve the reputation of a company/brand (the Levant response was to secure a company’s future over the long-term, which may be a nod towards Lebanon’s economic distress) . The second isn’t so clear-cut; in Egypt, the Levant and the GCC excluding KSA and the UAE the purpose is to give back to society. In Saudi it is to get free publicity via word-of-mouth advertising. And in the UAE there’s a host of reasons.

The question asked was, “Why do you think it’s important for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?”

When asked if they have a CSR programme in place, the majority of executives either said no or that they didn’t know. The UAE had the highest response rate, at 46%, followed by Egypt at 43%. The Levant was lowest at 20%. What is confusing here is all of the positive messaging shared by those interviewed beforehand – CSR supposedly helps with brand perception, with fending off competition, and with attracting and retaining talent. And yet why are there so few companies with CSR programmes? And why do so few executives know of their programmes (this also calls into doubt what they say throughout the survey)? The survey did ask why CSR programmes weren’t in place, but as there are no solid numbers to this, only percentages, it’s hard to gauge the reasons why.

There’s questions on how companies benchmark, as well as the importance of CSR to the company and the impact of CSR on the business overall. There’s also questions asked about consumer trust and CSR, supply chains and whether they’d stop doing business with companies that aren’t socially responsible. I’m going to skip these, and head to the last part, which is about CSR and that other C-word, Covid-19.

The Pandemic and CSR

This is the big topic for me, namely what impact has the pandemic had on CSR. The first question was, “How has the pandemic affected your CSR efforts?” For me, this could have been phrased better, as it doesn’t explicitly say if activities have gone up, or if they’re seen as more important by the organization. The Levant fares worst, which isn’t surprising given the freefall being experienced by Lebanon’s economy. The UAE fares best, with 53% saying somewhat/very positively. I find this fascinating, as I know many friends who’ve left CSR roles over the past year in the UAE as well as many charities who are suffering from a lack of cash flow. I’m just not so sure how this relates to reality on the ground.

The question asked was, “How has the pandemic affected your CSR efforts?”

Executives were also asked if CSR has become important (no surprises here, it has), as well as if they intend to keep up their CSR activities in 2022 – Egyptian, Saudi and the UAE executives said they would do more, while Levant and GCC executives said they’d do the same.

When asked what they’d focus on moving forward, there was no one big issue which stood out (I’m not sure why building company reputation is here, seeing as it’s an outcome and not an output). The most common area of focus was employees, which makes sense given mental wellbeing issues faced in 2020 and 2021.

The question asked was, “If your company plans to engage more in CSR in the COVID-19 era and afterwards, what will your company focus on?”

Let’s lots more which could be said about CSR in the region, and I hope any subsequent reports will be both qualitative as well as quantitative (certain responses need much more validation given they don’t fully match up to my own experiences, and those of others I know working in CSR in the region). I’m going to end here for now. If you’d like to see the full report, you can download it from here – https://www.cbpr.me/mena-csr-survey-report-2020/

Are We Moving Forward? The State of Play for CSR in the Middle East (Part One)

This report aimed to uncover insights into how CSR is both perceived and practised in the region (image source: The National)

Corporate Social Responsibility… What is it exactly, and what are organizations doing about it? The UAE-based PR agency Cicero & Bernay Public Relations teamed up with research firm YouGov to understand opinions about the subject across the Gulf, in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

The methodology was simple. The research team surveyed 219 C-suite executives from the UAE, KSA, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. The respondents included decision-makers in key sectors, including aviation,
automotive, banking and finance, construction and real estate, healthcare, and transport (importantly, it doesn’t mention if companies were private or semi-government). Data was collected online. The survey was 16 questions long, and the survey was undertaken in either English or Arabic. The pie charts below detail the industry type and country.

Now, let’s start with the big question. How many executives understand what CSR is? The picture here is mixed, with executives in the UAE claiming they know what CSR is, and those in the Gulf outside of the UAE and Saudi Arabia saying they don’t know what CSR is. I’m always a little wary of do you/don’t you questions, as people will often claim knowledge they don’t have (for example, ask anyone if they recycle – no one will say no). What would be fascinating is to compare these sample numbers with global samples, to contrast awareness levels with other regions.

Do Executives Understand CSR?

Moving on, the survey asks how well do you understand CSR. Most respondents say they understand the concept fairly well, with only the UAE having a majority saying they understand CSR very well. There may be a couple of reasons for this. The most obvious may be the number of multinationals (MNCs) based in the UAE. The survey doesn’t mention if executives are from MNCs, but even if they’re not, it may be the influence of MNCs on the regional landscape. It could also be executives overplaying how much they really know.

Defining What CSR Is, And Isn’t

The third question refers to statements to help define what CSR is that respondents either agree or disagree with. CSR is defined here is a traditional sense, in terms of donations (this would fit into what happens on the ground). However, executives don’t feel that CSR should involve companies “making some sacrifices”, and CSR may not have any link to good moral values. The majority of executives also believe that CSR is part of a reputation-building strategy, and that companies should get involved in specific issues (I rarely see this happening). Executives mainly believe that they should be CSR-certified (this is an interesting response, as there’s so few CSR certifications locally). Statement seven is a bizarre one, about CSR being a trade barrier enacted by Western companies – while the majority seem to say they believe this here, country breakdown percentages are much lower, so I assume there’s some data error here. And finally, most executives believe that the primary social responsibility is to make as much profit as possible – I bet their shareholders are proud of this.

Trust and Organizations

The fourth area of focus is on the trust bump a brand can get from engaging in CSR. There’s a general consensus that socially responsible brands are much more trusted than those that are not.

Likewise, there’s a belief among the majority of those surveyed that socially responsible companies can charge a premium for their products or services. And 55 percent said they would not buy a product from a socially irresponsible company. The same sentiments are also reflected in a further question about choosing socially responsible brands over others – the majority of respondents in every country said they’d do this. Finally, most executives said they’d advise friends or family to buy products and services from a socially responsible company. While this information is eye-opening, it begs the question as to why more companies aren’t more engaged in CSR if they see it as a major reputational benefit for their brands that both allows for increased profits and growth with socially-conscious consumers (we’ll get onto that later on, in section two).

Who Is Doing What Regarding CSR?

Now we move on what what people know about who is doing CSR, and where. In the UAE at least, there seems to be an awareness of which countries and which companies are doing CSR (as a country, the UAE has been especially active in developing national CSR programs). In Saudi there’s a higher awareness of which companies are active in CSR. The UAE is seen as the most active country, with 53% of respondents saying the country is the most active in CSR, followed by Saudi at 17% and Egypt at 10%.

That’s it for this post. I’ll write more tomorrow, including on employer branding and also the pandemic’s impact on CSR.