Sun Puts the Social in Social Responsibility

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve long criticized corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting. Despite the stakeholders’ seemingly insatiable thirst for information about the social and environmental impacts of companies, CSR reports read like infomercials, report outdated data, and no one is reading. This is a topic that I’ve learned perhaps too much about through my experience in launching, and the advising, research, and speaking I’ve done since.
In its 2008 CSR Report, Sun Microsystems has done something that I have never seen before in stakeholder engagement. Following the trend led by blogs in creating a deeper and more authentic experience for readers, Sun has enabled comments on its most recently release of its CSR report. Therefore, the report is now a conversation, no longer limited by its original authors’ text.
By enabling comments, readers can now submit publicly-visible questions (and statements) about the content and receive answers (and comments) directly from Sun, a company already known for its efforts in transparency. (Sun has over 7800 employee bloggers, an approach similar to that of Dell and Microsoft to effectively “open source” the voice of the company.) By enabling a direct feedback system, Sun will benefit from crowd-sourced fact checking (for better or worse), as is common in blogging when readers will elaborate or clarify where the original author may have less expertise or been mistaken. And its okay to be wrong; many high profile bloggers believe that it is the imperfect nature of the blog format, and the typos that do make their way to their posts, make the format more personal, since we are all human after all.

While Sun’s approach is noteworthy, there are similar efforts that enable conversation between company and consumers worth mentioning. One is corporate blogging. Like Sun, several companies have launched blogs authored by the employees who manage and monitor the respective company’s efforts to reduce environmental impact or support social causes. Among these are Intel, Seventh Generation, Patagonia, Timberland, McDonald’s, and Dell. Alternatively, companies like Dell and Starbucks are engaging consumers online to solicit product ideas, many of which are unsurprisingly related to environmental impact, on Ideastorm and My Starbucks Idea, respectively. Both these sites are powered by Salesforce’s arguably overpriced Ideas platform.
Sun’s efforts in putting the social back in social responsibility, a phrase coined by Marcy Lynn, the company’s CSR director, should be celebrated. CSR reporting is too often a one-way communication effort, celebrating accomplishments and sidestepping the tough questions. The limitations of this approach, of course, relate to a visitor’s trust in the moderation of the comments, since users are in effect adding to the content of the company’s official website, and its limited reach, since few people visit (or trust) corporate websites for information about companies. Regardless, Sun has taken a huge step forward, ahead of a pack of companies with more interest in celebrating their accomplishments than participating in conversations that might just make them better, more sustainable companies and corporate citizens.

Ryan Mickle is one of the partners and pundits behind 3p. He is a consultant, speaker, and passionate advocate for transparency, values-driven business, and empowering "consumers" to become evangelists in our new, decentralized media landscape. Ryan holds a BA in Economics from Berkeley, and he loves traveling, running marathons (love may be too strong a word), yoga, and contributing to the gross national happiness (GNH) in business and otherwise.