Innovation

How the voice of the people is driving corporate social responsibility

Harvard Business Review /

The business case for corporate social responsibility is getting easier and easier to make. You can argue that it boosts a company’s brand, manages risk and just plain saves money.

But perhaps most important is the fact that the general public is clamouring for companies to enact good, fair business practices – and most of that pressure is coming from social media.

There are plenty of recent examples of businesses that have embraced more sustainable practices as a result of a social media backlash.

Following this year’s collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, companies that sourced materials from the country quickly came under fire. Soon prominent retailers, including H&M, Zara and Tesco, banded together to create a safety plan to improve conditions in Bangladeshi factories – and the Gap wasn’t far behind.

In another example, last year the internet cried foul when Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a U.S. non-profit battling breast cancer, decided to yank funding for Planned Parenthood, causing Komen to reverse its decision within days.

And in 2010, Greenpeace attacked Nestlé with a viral video over its use of unsustainable palm oil. After three months of holding its ground against vocal naysayers on Facebook, the company finally agreed to cancel contracts with vendors who clear rainforests to make room for palm oil plantations. (Nestlé is now much more proactive about CSR.)

Feedback through social media is immediate, permanent and very public. When individuals feel strongly about a company’s performance on social or environmental issues, one small voice can quickly become a swarm, which is difficult for even the most shielded executive to ignore. Social has therefore become a driving force in many companies’ CSR agendas.

One of the easiest ways to be on the right side of the social media tide is to be proactive – and personal – about listening to customer feedback and responding authentically.

Firms that excel in this regard have active, branded Twitter accounts, but they also encourage their executives to use the service. You can easily reach Dave Stangis, Campbell’s Soup’s CSR lead, on Twitter, where he talks about the company’s initiatives as well as global sustainability issues. Another great example is Bruno Sarda, the sustainability operations director at Dell. Both of these execs, and many more, make their company’s corporate sustainability initiatives extremely personal, just by being present and approachable on Twitter.

To achieve a similar impact at your own firm, make sure that the people in charge of social media understand what your CSR efforts mean for your brand, and empower them to act in a positive way to support your company.

One firm that is leading the way in using social media to inform its sustainability program and communicate about its CSR agenda is Unilever. The personal care product and food conglomerate has dozens of brands and thousands of products covering everything from health and hygiene to greenhouse gas reductions – all of which makes Unilever’s sustainability program both extremely important and difficult to communicate. Yet the company has managed to bundle all of its brands under one umbrella, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan – a multifaceted initiative for communicating progress through a wide variety of methods, from video to Facebook to Twitter chats. The plan also includes traditional advertising tactics and public awareness campaigns from Dove and Lifebuoy soap, among other products.

Behind every great communicator is a great strategy. The campaigns and individuals mentioned above are successful because they reinforce the company’s brand and goals around both sustainability and consumer engagement.

Unilever is an excellent example of a firm with a bold, high-level strategy informing all of its sustainability communications. The company uses a variety of in-person and virtual strategies – like its online global dialogue, the Sustainable Living Lab, which in April brought together 550 attendees from 80 countries. Participants were extremely active, sharing 1750 comments on all aspects of sustainability. Through these initiatives, Unilever has demonstrated that interactive communication through social media is one regular component of its CSR strategy.

Ultimately, social media is just a communication tool like any other. But it is one that consumers use to talk about brands – and the world is listening. It’s easy to fear social media for the risks it can bring; but it can also be viewed as an opportunity. By listening to those early whispers of customer complaint, companies can act quickly to minimize fallout – while also acquiring the knowledge they need to inform and improve their internal CSR report.

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit.com, which covers sustainable business news.

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