Corporate sustainability communicators are beginning to exploit social media to tell their stories and get quick feedback. Which new media offers you the greatest potential- what is their digital bottomline?
While still very much a minority sport among corporations, blogs are already the grandfathers of Web 2.0. CEO s and corporate specialists have been blogging for many years, especially in the technology industry. Intel, for example, has a range of internal and external blogs, some focused on corporate sustainability. Suzanne Fallender, head of corporate responsibility communications at Intel, blogs regularly on the company’s CR blog.
Bob Langert, VP at McDonald’s, has confounded critics of the fast-food restaurant chain by engaging with them through his blog. One of the more prolific among the corporate sustainability bloggers is Kevin Moss, head of CSR at BT Americas, the US arm of the UK-based telecoms giant BT.
When used for internal communications, corporate blogging by senior executives can be highly effective because the medium gets you as close as possible to conversing with your employees.
But corporations find it much more difficult to talk openly with outsiders. All external sustainability blogs are, by necessity, rather anodyne. It is naive to think that a company can engage in a rumbustious conversation with all-comers: there are just too many legal and reputational risks involved.
Digital Bottom Line (DBL ): Blogs are useful ways to personalize messages, respond to critics and show that you are willing to engage. But avoid blogging unless you have something interesting to say, and the energy to keep it current.
McDonald’s Bob Langert on Blogging
“My advice is take it seriously. If you are going to get in, then get in. And have a thick skin.”
Social Networking – Connecting with Digital Communities
The success of social networking sites, such as Facebook, has spawned others that attempt to build digital communities within a social niche, such as LinkedIn, the professional networking site. Justmeans, a sustainability-focused website that offers a range of social networking options (jobs, forums, Twitter feeds…), is trying to build a community of people interested in sustainable development and philanthropy.
This group will not only generate beneficial interaction (debates, networking etc) for itself, but it could also offer companies a ready-made stakeholder engagement audience that can be accessed for a fee. For example, Timberland is using Justmeans to disseminate its quarterly online sustainability reports, and to solicit feedback. Campbell’s is trying something similar.
Such a ready-made audience is potentially good news for companies because it can save a lot of time, effort and money trying to reach specialist groups in traditional ways. The challenge for social networking sites is to attract an audience of the right quality and breadth to suit fee-paying users.
Some companies have tried to build their own digital communities as part of their marketing and public affairs engagement. Chevron, for example, has invested heavily in developing and advertising its willyoujoinus website that promotes energy-saving lifestyles.
Intel’s Suzanne Fallender on the Use of Social Media
“Social media are going to change corporate responsibility communications in a dramatic way. But there is still a lot of development ahead. The secret of success will be in the way you mix your media.”
DBL : Corporate sustainability communicators ignore social networking at their peril. Specialist digital communities promised by some sites could be too narrow for one-stop stakeholder engagement.
Corporate online forums have existed for over a decade, with Shell pioneering its Tell Shell forum in the 1990s. Usually connected to popular blogs, news outlets and social networking sites, forums offer opportunities for all-comers to express views and discuss issues. Companies selling controversial products, such as alcohol beverages, are using online forums to encourage debate on topics such as drunk driving and binge drinking. Brown-Forman, owner of Jack Daniel’s and a host of other brands, recently launched an online forum called “Our Thinking About Drinking”.
This contains serious articles on key topics of public concern, as well as expert views. It also provides an opportunity for anyone to join the debate.
DBL : Most public forums are blighted by debaters who are more interested in self-promotion than moving the conversation forward. Forums run by corporations send out a clear signal of openness, but this message is quickly undermined if the discussions are dull or too sanitised.
Business is still puzzling how to use this much-hyped service. Smaller companies are tweeting news about their products but the main benefit for large companies appears to be in helping to manage reputation. This is because Twitter can be used by companies to monitor what is being said about them in cyberspace, and to respond directly – and immediately – to those who might be spreading potentially damaging information.
Motorola’s Tama McWhiney on twitter
“Twitter has provided a new way for the Motorola Foundation to highlight its education programs and connect over 100 grantees with each other and other organizations with similar focus areas. We believe using Twitter makes the depth of our program more visible while sharing best practices among our grantees.”
DBL : The jury is still out on how useful Twitter will be for companies wanting to tweet about sustainability. But it is prudent to understand the medium and ponder its potential.
How to be Heard Above The Digital Noise
For the information-rich world of corporate sustainability, social media offer myriad opportunities to communicate, debate and solicit feedback.But digital public places are crowded and noisy.A clear strategy is needed to participate and be heard. While the media might be new, the fundamentals of good communications still apply: be precise in your messaging; clearly identify your audience; show respect; be honest. The magic ingredient is to offer value in your communications, instead of flooding the already noisy networks with more self-interested opinion. This means working hard to understand the needs of the audience and finding ways to truly engage with them. A good conversation is as much about listening and sharing as it is about talking.
© 2009, Peter Knight. All rights reserved. Do not republish.