How to use social media for better corporate social responsibility

29th Sep 2010

As corporate social responsibility and social media collide, David Connor examines the outcome - and provides tips on getting the most from CSR via social media.

There was a time when companies used to get away with almost whatever they wanted to because they had the ability to control the vast majority of the communication about their activities both good and bad. In the prehistoric days before the World Wide Web, traditional press officers pushed out paper press releases whenever they thought they had something that would impress an audience. The bad stuff, or even the just not so glowingly positive, hardly ever got past the reputation guardians.
Coincidentally, on a parallel track, a growing movement in and around business was emerging touting something called corporate social responsibility (CSR); the balancing of a company’s financial, environment and social impacts. In the beginning, the web offered an increased amount of corporate information available. Although still rigidly protected at source by the press officers, the initial explosion of readily accessible data and search tools created more opportunities for weaknesses to be noticed for those who cared to go looking. Then social media arrived and upped the ante exponentially.
Now everybody (and especially activist groups) with a mobile phone could if they had the slightest inclination, access this overwhelming amount of information then analyse, filter and broadcast their opinions to their own and often substantial and influential networks. This near instantaneous transmission of corporate misdemeanors had bypassed complacent press officers whilst visionary marketers spied a new era.
At the same time, CSR had evolved into a credible mainstream business concept, with further boosts received from improved understanding of the agenda, the recent economic crisis and the growing concern about climate change.
(An important misnomer that needs to be corrected is that regardless of the name 'corporate social responsibility' - not my favourite term, but unfortunately the most widely accepted - these discussions should not be ignored by small businesses. The same basic principles apply to any size of business right down to sole traders.)
Social media and CSR collide
Social media combined with CSR has been likened to a rare alignment of stars; headline global environmental and social issues, new technologies, international economic crisis and improving consumer awareness have lead to a current step change in the expectations of business behavior and communications.
Ask Nestle about their recent u-turn on palm oil thanks to 1.5 million views of a YouTube campaign by Greenpeace or BP about the Gulf oil disaster.
For example, BP’s (or #oilspill as they’re better know on Twitter) recent experience of social media has been a disaster, everything from anti-logo competitions, protest Twitter and Facebook accounts, countless blog articles and naive attempts at buying links and searches terms. A telling quote from summed up their approach well; BP is "more concerned with polishing its reputation than cleaning up its mess". BP lost over 50% of its share price in two months.
Imagine if they’d taken a different tack and put their hand up, said "we’ve made a mistake and we need all the help we can get"? Not likely admittedly, considering the traditional default defensive corporate communications setting, but Pepsi saw an opportunity and did exactly that. Their Refresh campaign asked people to vote for the best solutions to aid the issues around the Gulf and offered a pot of $1.3million. A socially and environmentally responsible act or a cynical marketing opportunity? You decide, but a demonstration of very different CSR and social media approaches, and at least some much need additional help for the Gulf of Mexico regardless of commercial motives.
Social media and CSR are helping trending buzzwords such as transparency; authenticity; responsible and ethical develop a tangible balance sheet value. Companies are now flirting with terms such as radical transparency aiming to climb the openness league table in search of competitive advantage. Where one leads others are already following.
The heart of CSR
At its heart CSR is about communication. If you’re genuinely considering financial, environmental and social impacts, by definition you need to listen to, consider and respond to the widest group of stakeholders possible. CSR helps manage risk and exploit opportunity through wider understanding; social media provides a perfect enthusiastic community to engage with.
If you combine the usually emotive topics CSR attempts to better manage with the scale of the audience afforded by social media you arrive at a potent communications vehicle. One of the best current examples is that of Timberland’s Earthkeepers movement; a strategic alignment of authentic brand values, CSR and social media. Here the successful global brand have married an obvious connection to the outdoor environment served by their products to an engaging marketing campaign, online stakeholder dialogue forum, CEO attended conference calls, online quarterly reporting of CSR performance, inspiring videos, Facebook group and much more.
In summary: CSR + social media = increased accountability and a new chapter of opportunity.
Tips to get the most from CSR and social media
  • Share don’t sell – CSR communications are best used to build brand trust, not to sell. Aim to be an educator or a facilitator. What have you learned on your CSR journey that may benefit others?
  • Listen – Both social media and CSR are about ongoing dialogues not monologues. You will learn something.
  • Have a strategy – Have clear objectives and a robust plan like any other investment decision.
  • Start internally – Work with your keenest audience first, your employees. Make sure they understand your CSR vision before you aim for the rest of the world.
  • Be painfully honest - Being completely transparent may not feel comfortable in a competitive world but it will add tangible value. People buy from those they trust, not because they’re sold to.
  • Shout – Businesses can feel wary of shouting about the CSR successes they have. Greenwash needs to be avoided, but be proud and bold!
  • Engage - CSR is an agenda full of passion stirring topics. Authentically tap into these with good intentions and you’re on to a winner. Aim to inspire.
  • Network – It may sound obvious but use social media to network. Find CSR minded new customers, suppliers and employees.
  • Crowdsource – Social media provides a fantastic conduit for ideas. Use your audiences to help solve social & environmental problems.
  • Killer-app - Why not build a smartphone application or online game that helps a social or environmental issue aligned to your core businesses values?
  • Ask – CSR is a wonderfully uncompetitive and sharing community, so ask for help. Twitter especially is a great place for research and to network with hashtags like #csr, #sustainability, #susty, #socent (social enterprise), #green and #ecomonday, etc.
David Connor is the managing director of Coethica.  

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