Early in 2008, Timberland, designer and retailer of premium footwear, clothing and accessories, announced it intended to publish quarterly corporate social responsibility (CSR) performance indicator reports online. Print reports would only be available every two years.
The move represented “an evolution in our CSR reporting process from static data presentation to dynamic information exchange; from corporate statement to stakeholder engagement; and from delayed annual reports to quarterly updates,” said the Stratham, N.H.-based company.
More significantly, the online disclosure and reporting format provided “invaluable feedback loops to help us achieve the bold goals set forth in our long-term CSR strategy,” said Timberland.
This aspect of feedback loops has been missing from the way most companies treat CSR programs and reporting. The traditional model is to produce an annual glossy CSR report (in the best cases guided by the requirements of the Global Reporting Initiative), perhaps having consulted with a non-governmental organization or two about what should be in the report, then distribute it to selected stakeholders.
Few companies taking part
But few companies have engaged an interested and involved public in a sustained discussion about CSR performance goals, their progress towards meeting those metrics and how they want people to engage with them, in part because facilitating the interaction was thought to be too cumbersome, with little return for the effort.
The social web changes all that, with its capacity to allow connection, sharing, creation and participation. Social web technologies, of which there are thousands — such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, photo and video-sharing platforms (including Flickr, Vimeo and YouTube) — allow people to network with each other and reach out to organizations. And they allow organizations to interface with customers and other stakeholders in real time about what they are trying to do to meet community expectations for responsible environmental, social and financial performance.
These technologies can also give employees an opportunity to highlight their own initiatives in support of their organization’s sustainability programs, as well as involve themselves in its interaction with stakeholders.
Nevertheless, when it comes to taking advantage of the social web to change the nature of CSR, penetration is still thin. In looking at 287 companies worldwide, the SMI Social Media Sustainability Index in 2010 found:
•65 had social media communications dedicated to sustainability and CSR issues
•55 relied on their general social media channels to talk about sustainability
•167 had no social media channel for discussing sustainability.
This is in contrast to how people prefer to find information on a company’s CSR activities. Between 2006 and 2010, there was a significant increase in the number of people who use the Internet (in addition to corporate websites, a separate category) as their source for information about a company’s CSR performance, according to the GlobeScan Radar survey 2010: Canadian Public Opinion on CSR. During the same period, the use of newspaper reports, company ads and a company’s own reports and publications all declined.
Companies should redevelop their websites and rethink “the format of their CSR communications to make it more attractive and up to date,” said the GlobeScan report.
“Focusing on strong social media and other modern online communications tools is a must. Companies should also closely monitor what is being said about them on other websites and forums valued by consumers.”
6 ways to bring CSR programs to life online
So how, specifically, can organizations make best use of the social web in creating CSR programs? Assuming there is sufficient internal latitude, some experience with social web strategies in other parts of the organization and human resources available to manage the social web communities (the tools themselves are inexpensive or free — the cost comes from the time needed to manage them), here are six ways to bring CSR programs to life on the social web:
Make employees brand ambassadors: Empower employees to act as brand ambassadors on the social web platforms they use for personal purposes or as explicit representatives of the organization in social networks. One model here is Best Buy’s Twelpforce, which empowers its associates to monitor, tweet and share their knowledge with customers on its behalf. Besides paying for itself in enhanced brand perceptions and customer service costs, the Twelpforce program has given Best Buy employees an extraordinary vote of confidence in their commitment to the best interests of the company.
Create a forum: Create a platform within the company’s web architecture or an external social network for sharing, involvement and feedback — and let employees participate. Food retailer Whole Foods has forums on its website that allow for the exchange not only of recipes but also civic debate, while Loblaw created a sustainable seafood Facebook page to engage customers keen to protect endangered fish species.
Start tweeting: Use Twitter to put a human face on CSR efforts, provide personal interaction and have some fun with people who are paying attention to the organization’s behaviour as much as its products and services. Peter Aceto, CEO of ING Direct, opened an active Twitter account about two years ago and his tweets have made ING seem more client-friendly, more in tune with ordinary people and more available to solve problems, whether true or not. Tumblr is another microblogging platform that allows for the easy posting of images, ideas, links and comments for any organization that wants a sustained personal connection with stakeholders.
Let employees blog: Entrust employees to create microblogs on Tumblr to catalogue and talk about their community relations activities on behalf of the organization. The Molson Coors Canada in the Community blog platform is a more formal example of what’s possible when employees are given a looser rein to talk about their personal contributions to community engagement programs.
Solicit public input on CSR: Look at ways to co-create online with stakeholders by using the social web’s facility for exchanging ideas and voting. A number of cities in the United States (such as Seattle) have used Drupal or Joomla (open-source web content management systems) to build sites where people can contribute ideas for the future of the city as well as vote on existing ideas submitted by fellow citizens. Using these systems is a useful way to solicit input on CSR activities or to determine a new focus for CSR programming and communication.
Create special-interest communities: Create communities for specific segments of CSR stakeholders, as Rogers has done with its Facebook communities targeted at small businesses and people interested in on-demand movies. While marketing-oriented, the principle of creating content specific to special interests — such as packaging stewardship, heritage protection or civic open spaces — still applies. These communities facilitate a stakeholder-specific bond and the appearance of a more personal and authentic relationship with stakeholders. They also provide a place where employees themselves can enrich the dialogue around their own unique interests or roles.
Remember, the corporate voice doesn’t play well. That’s why empowering employees to help in communicating CSR and community relations programs through the social web can be so powerful. By nature, they won’t speak in the corporate voice.
Authenticity is an over-used word but authenticity in intent and language is critical, largely because people can detect falsity online.
Ideas for Seattle or Loblaw’s Facebook page are successful because, by and large, they are straightforward, energetic, clear and personal in tone and ambience.
There is also little point, as many organizations do, to simply push content without being prepared to respond. Yes, a company may have a few hundred followers on its Twitter account and one thousand “likes” on its Facebook page, but unless it reciprocates — and allows employees to reciprocate — when people contribute ideas or ask questions, these will be hollow wins. The organization might be popular but it isn’t going to be influential.
Successful relationships with a public who is interested and involved in an organization’s corporate social responsibility initiatives are a consequence of allowing participation, taking advice, using employees as brand ambassadors and respecting their and stakeholders’ opinions. The best way to make that happen is by using the right social web strategy and freeing employees to play a part.
Boyd Neil is a national practice leader of social media and digital communications at Hill & Knowlton Canada in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (416) 413-4626 or on Twitter@boydneil.