The Unrealized Potential of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Social Media Campaigns

More companies are taking to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs to talk about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) than ever before. Although not all of them are getting it right, the rewards are great if a company does get it spot on. A social approach to telling CSR stories can enliven new ideas and active dialogue with even the hardest to reach stakeholder. I personally think that social media and sustainability should be a particularly powerful combination given that both are rooted in the principles of authenticity, transparency, collaboration, and community.

So what is holding companies back? According to Bernhard Warner, author of #FAIL: The 50 Greatest Social Media Screw-Ups, companies are petrified of screwing-up, and that fear is magnified when their social responsibility is put under the microscope. Obvious examples of failures are BP's experience during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Unilever's Dove brand coming under scrutiny by Greenpeace, and, the criticized McDonalds Twitter #McStories campaign. According to Mark McDonald and Anthony Bradley (co-authors of The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees), social media marketing communications are dangerous because the popularity of these new mediums can stunt the value of social media overall and distract from how it may provide value to all offered business functions. There’s so much focus on things like “how many Likes do you have?”, while in fact a hundred, thousand, a million "Likes" on Facebook is not a measure of engagement, but rather a measure of attention, at best. Although social media followers may represent a potential target audience for actual community-based collaboration, the company still must reach out to all interested parties with a purpose that they will rally around in order to actually deliver value to an enterprise.

Still, according to McDonald and Bradley, social media has become a significant tool in capturing the next wave of organizational challenges that can’t be handled by a simple organization or process change. For example, the authors discuss how CEMEX, a cement and building materials company, is raising its use of alternative fuels and lowering its emissions, not by a series of edicts and corporate process changes, but by using mass collaboration to involve a community. Social media is helping the company identify changes and then swiftly adopt changes across the enterprise. In this case, CEMEX had a 5 percent gain in their use of alternative fuels in less than five weeks by creating a collaborative community enabled by social media. This is innovative because social media is not being used simply as a marketing tool, but rather as part of a tool kit to make fundamental changes and achieve complex goals that require a coordinated response.

Social media is affecting CSR initiatives because it provides a way to target, communicate with, and engage an audience. Firms can successfully leverage that audience to drive participation, enthusiasm, and awareness of their corporate responsibility efforts. Furthermore, there is even more potential in using social media to leverage collective knowledge and mass collaboration from communities of stakeholders to expand sustainable organizational capabilities.