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Digital disruption is today’s reality. Internet has exploded as a primary distribution point content creating new opportunities to engage people in topics they really care about. Companies in the field of CSR & Sustainability are being forced to make a 360-degree turn and revamp their communications, marketing, supply chain operations, and basically every part of the business. Social media has begun to play a key role in how companies shape their CSR policies and present themselves as good corporate citizens. As business leaders strive to build more sustainable and social responsible entities, formal social media strategies are becoming paramount. The future of CSR & Sustainability is, unarguably, digitally-driven and socially-savvy.

CSR is an interdisciplinary emergent field. In order to acquire a growing understanding of how to navigate the numerous way of handling CSR, communication and dialogue about it is a necessary step forward. What complicates the communication process, thought, is the variety of interests surrounding a CSR initiative. Not all stakeholders want the same information about the initiative. For example, some investors are interested in the financial effect of the CSR effort on the corporation (e.g. ROI), while local communities want to know how the actions directly affect their lives. The CSR communication needs to be tailored to each stakeholder yet maintain an overall consistency.  Without the stakeholders’ awareness of the company’s CSR activities, corporations are unable to draw any reputational benefit from it. Consumers’ awareness of a corporation’s CSR efforts is, particularly, a key pre-requisite for positive reactions to such activities. Therefore, the CSR communication stage should consist of a plan that outlines the stakeholders to be addressed, channels (media) to be used to reach them, and primary messages to be sent to each stakeholder group. Creative communication solutions are, furthermore, needed to communicate corporate responsibility messages in a way that is striking, relevant, and understandable.

Digitalizing CSR communication is a challenge and one needs to start with a communications strategy that extends over the full year. It is important that the strategy encompasses multiple channels and multiple-messages, even considering different formats of content such as social media, blogs, video, photos and newsletters. The penetration of digital and social channels into daily, working routine has reached a tipping point in terms of stakeholder’s access to corporate information and engagement over environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and the four main trends that have been identified are:

  1. An ever increasing adoption of social media networks as legitimate channels for CSR communication.
  2. The necessity of leadership to get active on the social web and develop interpersonal relationships as consumers increasingly engages with companies on social media around CSR topics.
  3. Targeted, relevant and useful information for effective CSR communication that need to ‘packaged’ in the right form by adopting more innovative approaches such as infographics and videos (visual story-telling is easier to absorb). Social media users are not interested in grand claims and general strategy overviews, but in concrete examples of how strategies are translated into everyday action and evidence of how companies are addressing major environmental and social impact through case studies, projects in action, answer to stakeholders’ questions, videos, news and updates on initiatives.
  4. Community feedback still has to be integrated in the company’s operations in addition to transparent stakeholder engagement.

Social media is one of the most valuable communication channels for CSR. The biggest benefit is that it allows brands to create distinctiveness and an opportunity to stand out with their CSR communications. Organizations can use social media to:

  1. Learn what CSR issues are important to stakeholders (find emerging issues)
  2. Determine if stakeholders are aware of CSR activities
  3. Assess stakeholders reactions to initiatives
  4. Increase awareness of CSR initiatives
  5. Provide an avenue for stakeholder engagement

The number one priority in social media is listening. Points 1 through 3 involve listening. Listening to stakeholders helps managers to understand the stakeholders and their CSR concerns. This CSR knowledge base provides a foundation for engaging stakeholders and eventually promoting awareness of CSR initiatives.

Communicating the company’s CSR messages in social media can be a basis for creating an echo. An echo occurs when people pick up the CSR messages and relay them to others- the online version of word-of-mouth communication. The CSR messages may or may not have the potential to become viral but the use of social media will help create the potential for echoes to emerge.  Fans on Facebook, followers on Twitter, and people reading the blogs are exposed to the message and can create echoes through retweets, reposts, and any other opportunity to share information with others. The online echoes cam also provide people an opportunity to add personal endorsements to the message. Trends will only emerge if people are ready to embrace the trends. This means the viral effort amplifies an existing need or concern rather than create a new one. All in all, social media are the key component to external word out of mouth for a company’s CSR initiatives.

The unique aspect of social-networking sites is that a person’s social network is exposed to others. The ability to see the social networks of others provides an opportunity to make additional connections that would have not occurred otherwise. Fan pages, particularly are public and allow organizations to add a variety of information and to engage directly in discussions with stakeholders. CSR initiatives and issues are a logical topic that could emerge on a fan page.

Using social media for CSR may or may not be a “business decision,” but it can help build positive reputation and possibility increase customer loyalty and sales. Major brands are finally starting to tap their customers to create an audience/support network for their CSR initiatives. A powerful mix of content, media, and entertainment can bring to CSR programs enormous success. It is critical to be transparent when it comes to a company’s CSR program, especially when harnessing social networking platforms. Being real, open and communicative is vital to reputation management. Online networking can help significantly improve a brand’s image externally, as well as boost company morale. For instance, Nike recently launched an online social media network called the We Portal, which serves as a platform for employees to discuss ways they can socially engage with one another, and how the company can be more sustainable.

The social media posts can be paired with efforts to target important CSR online resources. Public relations have since a long been an option for the low-cost dissemination of CSR information. The online environment provides some unique opportunities for uncontrolled CSR public relations. Common public relation tactics that can be used for CSR promotion are digital brochures, news releases; section of a corporate website devoted to CSR, special websites to discuss CSR, employee blogs, employee tweets, posts to discussion boards and targeted CSR information sent to CSR social media (bloggers and tweeters). Sending information to social media sources mimics a news release on the digital platform and acknowledges the growing power of social media. There are a number of CSR online portals and blogs that attract a great deal of attention. If a corporation can distribute through these outlets, the reach and credibility of the messages are greatly enhanced. The upside of these uncontrolled tactics is the third-party effect.Third –party endorsements serve to complement and to reinforce CSR messages from corporations. Legitimate third parties transfer their CSR credibility to an organization when communicating their support for that corporation. The company (1) saves on the cost, (1) does not appear to be an active promoter, and (3) gains CSR credibility from the CSR parties. Influential opinion leaders, e-fluentials and even average people may also contribute their own interpretation of the messages. Adding their own viewpoints may, further, increase perceptions of the authenticity of the messages. Either a few influentials can be targeted with the initial message or a lot of people can be targeted using mass efforts to reach a broad spectrum of target audience. The two step model involves (1) the mass media being used to deliver the message and (2) the people who receive that message transmitting it to other people. The system can continue multiply as people keep relaying the message to others. The argument for using social media in essence as evident here, is that they facilitate the ability of people to share messages. The journey through this two-step flow and viral-marketing process provides a rationale for crafting a CSR social media strategy.

Working with CSR Bloggers is a long-term investment that a company should consider making. Companies should cultivate relationships with these bloggers instead of merely pitching their CSR stories to them. This would involve understanding what type of information the blogger really wants, sharing relevant information, and responding to the questions of the bloggers.

Corporate websites are recognized as one of the most important media genre for CSR communication. Not only do they have global reach, they also allow the organizations to persuade, inform, educate, and interact with stakeholders via blogs and links to social media sites. They are low cost options, for providing detailed CSR information with corporations frequently providing a section including any CSR or sustainability report they produce. A tab “What we stand for” on corporate citizenship and volunteerism can be added on the websites adding small elements of all CSR works. CSR profiles and projects together with CSR strategies, reports, code of ethics, etc. can either be placed in hypertext format or as downloadable pdf files. For example, Starbucks posts its annual “Global Responsibility Reports” that are available for download as pdf files. Starbucks’ website also presents information about its CSR actions in great details and provides visuals to reinforce the text.  For ease of consumption by consumers, a more condensed version of its “Global Responsibility Report” is also available in the form of a “Global Responsibility Scorecard.”  Similarly, Vodafone is one of the many corporations that devote a specific section of its corporate website to CSR. Some corporations create separate websites focusing on CSR. For example, Intel has a CSR website, CSR@Intel which is primarily a blog for its employees. Most companies provide attractive photographs and links to additional information for those interested in the details of their CSR activities.

Apart from blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, MySpace, Pinterest, virtually every topic has an internet forum somewhere. Companies need to identify forums relevant to their operations and their CSR issues. These forums provide a place for the stakeholders to share and discuss both information and opinions. For instance, Starbucks is one of a number of corporations that have begun to operate their own internet forums as a means of engaging stakeholders with CSR. Furthermore, Companies can embrace games, apps, maps along with new and emerging social media platforms as well to reinvent the way their sustainability reports can be packaged and shared. Content communities emerge when people converge around some object of interest. YouTube (video) and Flickr (still images) are prominent content communities. A corporate may find content communities relevant to their CSR issues. Moreover, videos or images about a company’s CSR, posted by either or employees or external shareholders, might create a content community.

Story-telling is vital for corporate CSR efforts. From a recruiting and retention point of view, it’s a key motivator for younger audiences. Capturing all tweets, photos, and videos about CSR initiatives and encapsulating them in one Storify post can be used on the corporate blog. Stories are also an opportunity to showcase employees’ contributions to the CSR programs. Stories should be told through consumable infographics and in innovative ways that make it more digestible for customers, employees and stakeholders. Blogs, podcasts, Instagram story posts and video bursts are all tactics that one can integrate into pre-existing content marketing strategy.

Online media provide an opportunity to reach people while appearing low cost and low effort, and using third parties. Corporations should identify the social media channels to utilize and any specialized online CSR outlets to target. Escalating costs for the CSR promotional communication tactics increase the likelihood of a boomerang effect from the CSR messages. Excessive spending on messages that tout the corporations’ involvement in the social concern may create the impression that the corporation is more interested in generating publicity for itself than supporting the CSR concern. People know that online posts cost virtually nothing and do not seem to involve a great deal of effort. This makes it an ideal vehicle for CSR promotional communication.

Although a corporation may not have CSR-related news to communicate every day, CSR-related activities occur continuously throughout the year. Continuous promotional communication is more robust and appears as an ongoing conversation with stakeholders about CSR. Being a part of the conversation engenders greater trust in CSR messages than the occasional statement on the subject. Corporate websites should be updated frequently to report ongoing activities. Rather than framing CSR as a once-a-year topic, the continuous approach demonstrates it is a topic that corporation contemplates regularly. For this, social media are an excellent resource. Given the nature of social media, periodic CSR messages will not appear over-promote. Stakeholders expect regular blog entries, tweets, and posts to Facebook. Using a combination of social media and websites will not make it appear as though the corporation is devoting too much time and money on promoting its CSR initiatives.

As the adage goes, “there’s power in numbers” and social media provides companies- who actively engage- with an influential, built-in network of passionate consumers that become followers of a brand and are interested in what it is doing. Social media strategies not only amplify good actions of the companies but also generate doves of supporters. From raising awareness, to connecting with consumers in the way they want to engage and foster positive action, leveraging CSR in the social media world can strengthen consumer trust and loyalty, encourage followers to take and participate, and put a halo over the brand that dives in.

There is a definite and powerful correlation between the companies that rate highly for overall sustainability performance and those companies that do best for CSR and sustainability in the digital space. Sustainability practitioners were at first slow to realize social media’s potential to help communicate their efforts but over the last three years they have made for the lost time. In 2011, just 60 companies had dedicated social media channels to talk about sustainability. By 2011, the number had doubled. By 2012, 176 major companies around the world had allotted dedicated resources and social media channels to their sustainability dialogue.  And the number has only increased since then. Twitter and Facebook have been the favorite channels for sustainability communicators. Of more interest are the dedicated blogs or sustainability social media magazines being published, suggesting the continued importance of editorial storytelling in describing a company’s practice on sustainability and CSR. Social media and sustainability work well together because the foundations of both are the same: authenticity, transparency, community, innovation, and creativity.  Therefore, it is crucial that digital communications teams and CSR teams collaborate and work closely.

The growing importance of social media demands a more thorough analysis of its application to CSR communication. Integrating social media into sustainability is becoming inevitable because the need to go beyond mere reporting is growing exponentially. It is now time for digital adopting in CSR Reporting. By re-purposing material from the CSR report and tailoring it for other digital channels, companies can realize the full potential of their CSR communication by reaching out to a wider public or additional stakeholders with specialized interests. How companies understand and use their social media to communicate their sustainability activities will only grow in importance as it becomes part of the business communication mainstream. As a route to engagement, dialogue, and building reputation, the power of Social Media is huge.

REFERENCES:

  1. Excerpts from the book Timothy Coombs, Sherry J. Holladay, Managing Corporate Social Responsibility: A Communication Approach, First Edition.
  2. Melissa Jun Rowley, Why Social Media Is Vital to Corporate Social Responsibility at http://mashable.com/2009/11/06/social-responsibility/#MbHArelafaqi
  3. Katharine Panessidi, Using Digital Media for CSR, at http://blogs.imediaconnection.com/blog/2010/06/18/using-digital-media-for-corporate-social-responsibility-csr/
  4. Laura Hall, Tying Together Social Media and Corporate Social Responsibility at http://www.convinceandconvert.com/guest-posts/tying-together-social-media-and-corporate-social-responsibility/
  5. Iliyana Stareva, The Rise of Social Media for CSR and Sustainability at http://www.iliyanastareva.com/blog/rise-social-media-csr-sustainability
  6. Matthew Yeomans, Communicating sustainability: the rise of social media and storytelling at http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/communicating-sustainability-social-media-storytelling

 

 

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