An overwhelming majority (82 percent) of Americans believe Congress should ensure that companies are addressing major social issues. The enthusiasm for action is shared across the political spectrum, with 96 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Republicans saying it is either very or extremely important for Congress to ensure that companies are addressing social issues, according to a survey conducted by Fleishman-Hillard.

“These findings paint a far different picture of corporate social responsibility than the model laid out by Milton Friedman nearly 40 years ago.,” said Dave Senay, president and chief executive officer of Fleishman-Hillard. “The American public not only expects companies to help solve social issues but also wants government to step in to ensure that they do As a result of the public’s expectations, next year’s elections may lead to greater governmental involvement in the role business plays in responding to societal concerns.” 

More than three-fourths of surveyed Americans give U.S. companies less-than-high marks in the area of operating in a socially responsible manner, although Democrats and Independents rate U.S. corporate performance significantly lower than did Republicans. Also, a majority of Americans believe that certain critical sectors—specifically, the energy, food, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries—need more government oversight than other industries to ensure that they are operating in a socially responsible way.   

“The generally lukewarm perception of U.S. corporations on social responsibility, along with the prevailing belief that Congress may need to get involved, could lead to increased oversight of the private sector on Capitol Hill,” said former U.S. Senator Jim Talent, who joined Fleishman’s government affairs unit earlier this year.

In addition to looking for more government oversight, 77 percent of surveyed American consumers believe that there is a need for global standards outlining corporate social responsibility criteria (an increase of 12 percent over last year’s results). Furthermore, two-thirds of respondents indicate that they would make purchasing decisions in favor of a company that meets such global standards for social responsibility.

“It’s evident that consumers are paying even more attention to socially responsible behavior  and that they want to give their business to companies that meet common standards,” says Linda Golodner, president of the National Consumers League, who along with Talent was part on an expert panel discussing the results of the survey at Georgetown University last week. Also on the panel were Airana Huffington, co-founder of online news site Huffington Post, National Journal columnist William Powers, and Patrick Cleary, senior vice president of communications for the National Association of Manufacturers.

Says Golodner: “Efforts to help the business community improve its level of social engagement, such as international social responsibility standards currently under development, will be essential if this growing consumer expectation is to be met.”

While environmental issues are currently hot topics of national media attention, the survey reveals that Americans’ priorities are more aligned with another concern: corporate treatment of employees.

For the second year in a row, respondents say a company’s treatment of its employees and its involvement in the community count more than its environmental stewardship in defining its commitment to social responsibility. Independents (42 percent) are more likely than Democrats (33 percent) (by a difference of 27 percent) to say that it is more important for a company to treat employees well. By comparison, Democrats (22 percent) are more likely than Republicans (7 percent) or Independents (13 percent) to say that it is most important for a company to go beyond the law to protect the environment.

The survey also finds that Americans expect companies to be actively engaged in the communities in which they operate, and to go beyond charitable contributions. When asked what expectations they have for companies doing business in their own communities, three times as many respondents favor non-financial contributions, such as community involvement and volunteerism, over financial contributions.

“Charitable contributions are still a vital component of a company’s larger corporate social responsibility efforts, but Americans expect companies in their communities to give time and expertise in addition to money,” Senay says.

Finally, a majority of Americans now rank the Internet as their top source for learning about the corporate social responsibility record of a company in their community. Of those respondents using online resources to check on CSR, 73 percent have used Internet search engines, such as Google or Yahoo!, 57 percent have used websites of independent groups, and close to half have used corporate websites. More than one-fourth of respondents who use the Internet to learn about a company’s CSR record are specifically turning to blogs or podcasts set up by customers or non-management employees of companies: a 100 percent increase over last year’s results.

“Americans are changing not only their views on the roles that business and government play in addressing social needs but also the manner in which they learn about a company’s social responsibility record,” said Robert Manuel, the dean of Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. “A majority of Americans now bypass television and newspapers and turn to online sources to understand the social responsibility record of companies in their community. And more and more Americans are viewing social-networking sites, where a company cannot control its message, to gather information.”