The report provides further support for the proposition that corporate citizenship is becoming increasingly important to U.S. consumers. The Hill and Knowlton survey, called Corporate Citizen Watch, was conducted during the spring of 2001, with a representative sample of 2,594 Americans aged 18 or older taking part in online omnibus interviews.

The study found that 79 percent of Americans take corporate citizenship into account when deciding whether to buy a particular company’s product, with 36 percent considering it an important factor. The survey also found that 71 percent consider corporate citizenship in their investment decisions, with 12 percent saying they would buy the stock of socially responsible companies, even if it meant accepting lower financial returns.

Meanwhile, less than 2 percent of survey respondents perceive US companies as excellent corporate citizens, while only slightly more than a quarter rate companies in the “above average” category. On the other hand, the survey found that a slight majority of Americans (53 percent) feel U.S. companies do a below average job of performing as good corporate citizens.

Corporate America’s low marks for citizenship may be due – at least in part – to a high degree of cynicism regarding corporate motivation. Three-quarters of survey respondents expressed a belief that participation in charitable activities is motivated by a desire for good publicity. Americans are particularly suspicious of CEOs who act as talking heads: only one third of survey participants said they are very impressed by executive spokespeople. And fewer than 25 percent believe companies donate time and money because they are truly committed to charitable causes.

“There is no question that Americans believe companies have a responsibility to their communities,” said Harlan Teller, executive vice president and director of Hill and Knowlton’s Worldwide Corporate practice. “But our survey findings suggest that corporations need to do more than simply give away dollars. They need to act in ways that are meaningful to their stakeholders – consumers, investors, employees, and members of the local community – and that genuinely demonstrate their core corporate values.”

According to Harlan Teller, corporations are facing a challenging economic climate combined with progressively sophisticated consumers. “Certain corporate citizenship initiatives are more likely to be successful than others in this kind of environment,” Teller said. For example, Hill and Knowlton’s study found that companies that donate a portion of their sales to charitable causes fared comparatively well, with a majority of people (58 percent) finding such activity to be “impressive” or “extremely impressive.”

In addition, donating products or services or volunteering employee time was considered “impressive” or “extremely impressive” by 59 percent of the respondents. Again, as in past surveys, Americans believe that the number one issue for Corporate America to tackle is education (26 percent), followed by health and welfare (23 percent).

Hill and Knowlton’s Corporate Citizen Watch comes out at a time when companies are deciding what role citizenship should play in overall business strategy. As executives continue to debate how a corporation’s social impact affects the bottom-line, it is clear that companies have a long way to go before succeeding as corporate citizens in the eyes of the American public.