By Kate McClaskey

A recent study conducted by Vikas Mittal of Rice University [PDF] found that Americans now more than ever, expect corporations to not only be profitable, but sustainable and socially responsible. But even with high expectations, CSR can get caught in the PR net, becoming labeled as nothing more than a stunt. The British research firm Business Planning & Research International recently found that 44 percent of the British public and 67 percent of members of Parliament find CSR to be more about creating a good image than corporate responsibility. This is still a troubling pattern for CSR.

A recent example of what some are calling a CSR publicity stunt comes from the restaurant chain Hooters, who announced last month that they are collecting torn Hooters girl’s pantyhose from all over the country and donating them to be used in boons in an effort to help absorb the oil spilt in the Gulf of Mexico. The effort, called Project Pantyhose, could ultimately absorb 1 million gallons of oil.

This and other such corporate endeavors have made the CSR effort even more confusing. In a 2007 article in the Journal of Communication Management, it was found that CSR initiatives are not really taken seriously by a lot of the media. That CSR is criticized as being a PR stunt is unsurprising, bearing in mind that many CSR workers in companies sit in the communications and PR departments.

But even if CSR is seen as simply an attempt to gain favorable press their outcomes are unchanged. CSR still helps companies, employees, communities, and the environment. Only the tactics in which companies approach their corporate responsibility measures differ. Some like Hooters, use media grabbing tactics, while others such as Starbucks have simply incorporated it into every aspect of their company’s operations. According to a British marketing firm, “Publicity stunts can help, but they need to be planned and have the desired outcome, so as not to take away from the overall message and negate the meaning.”

According to Chris Jarvis, the Senior Consultant for Realized Worth, there are certain things companies can do to restore trust in their CSR strategy. Companies should create their CSR programs with their employees in mind, because they are the ones “that make CSR work inside and outside the company.” It is hard to contradict employees who believe in their company. Those companies that restrict CSR initiatives to purely cause-marketing hurt the legitimacy of the companies who have more earnest efforts towards corporate responsibility. In order for CSR efforts to thrive, they must be trustworthy. Because it’s not always what companies do that is the most important, but how they do it. Jarvis emphasizes that “Everything your company does, including everyone the company does business with is CSR. The process is the product.”

For CSR to be seen across the board as a respected way to give back to the community and environment, there has to be an overarching change in the way that companies promote their initiatives. And in this age of media access, the temptation to use stunts to attract attention is greater than ever.

Even Greenpeace, an organization focused on conservation and the environment, isn’t afraid of using stunts to bring companies to action. Their most recent campaign rallied against Nestle for using palm oil in their products, which kills trees that orangutans live in in Indonesia, by creating a video on YouTube.

It was labeled as a publicity stunt. It was also a success. Nestle soon announced that it would no longer use products that cause tropical rainforest destruction.

The question remains, do stunts hurt or help?

The thing to remember is that in the end, CSR works. Corporate Watch writes that “by appealing to customers’ consciences and desires, CSR helps companies to build brand loyalty and develop a personal connection with their customers. In our media saturated culture, companies are looking for ever more innovative ways to get across their message, and CSR offers up many potential avenues, such as word of mouth or guerilla marketing, for subtly reaching consumers.”

In the end, even though Hooters can be criticized for their tactics, they have the potential to do some good in the gulf.

“Who would have thought our Hooters Girls’ pantyhose would have a use other than making the girls’ legs look great,” stated Mike McNeil, Vice President of Marketing, Hooters of America. “The Hooters Girls friendly service has just become environmentally friendly as well.”