Corporate Social Responsibility Communication in the Digital Era

By Mark Anthony Camilleri

The digital age has paved way for a dynamic era of corporate communication. Everything from blogs and RSS feeds to webinars and social media give organizations new tools with which to interact directly with their stakeholders. Such interactive communications are often referred to as viral, because ideas and opinions spread through the network via word‐of‐mouth and are usually perceived as highly trustworthy sources.

When organizations interact with their online networks, they may find their stakeholders share their passion for laudable causes. Very often, there is a business case for corporate social responsibility — and communicating your CSR vision online is just one more way to help your company stand out, reach out and engage.

Online communication has potential to create a ripple effect that grows as it reaches wider audiences. And social media empowers users to engage with organizations on a myriad of issues. So why not CSR?

Your digital communication toolkit

Due to its apparent lack of gatekeeping and its symmetric two-way communication, digital media is suitable for undertaking a corporate-public dialogue. But open platforms like social media can also increase the complexities of the debates as they decrease the level of institutionalization of the interactions between organizations and their stakeholders. In other words: Conversations can grow quickly once they reach open platforms like Twitter and Facebook, but your organization forfeits some ability to moderate or control them.

As such, social media has transformed the communicative dynamics within and between corporations and their external environment. These online networks are effective monitoring tools as they could feature early warning signals of trending topics. And, in the case of CSR communications, they can help business communicators and marketers to identify and follow the latest sustainability issues.

Harnessing the power of social media and digital presence can also help your organization’s CSR influencers gain prestige as expert voices. Mastering the use of popular hashtags — from the basics like #CSR and #sustainability to niche topics like #SharedValue — allow your influencers to interact directly with stakeholders on their topics of expertise. And custom hashtags for your company’s events or marketing promotions can quickly catch fire and generate far more publicity than more traditional forms of advertising. Charities, philanthropic organizations and NGOs can also harness the power of the hashtag to help their campaigns go viral.

But your digital CSR communications can’t begin and end with social media.

Modern tools like Scrivener make it easy to write and compile for formats including .mobi (Kindles) and .epub (iBooks).

Guest blogging on respected industry websites is a great way to build reputation and authority, but also appropriate backlinks are crucial for strong search engine optimization. Moreover, regular contributions on blogs allow your influencers to connect with users they may not otherwise reach; by sharing ideas and opinions, they can spread awareness on your organization’s CSR mission or promoted content.

After scattering the breadcrumbs of engagement across the Web, smart digital communicators will follow up with tracking and analytics tools to see which form of content had the biggest impact on their organization’s target audience. Businesses can make use of project management systems like Asana or Trello, or intranet tools like Interact or Podio, to track the  effectiveness of their outreach campaigns.

Crafting a social media presence that fits your goals

But the most ubiquitous form of digital communication is clearly social media, with an estimated 2.51 billion social media users worldwide in 2017. So regardless of what your tracking reveals, social media will surely play a role in your CSR communications vision. But the social media platform that’s best for another organization may not work for you, and your tracking can help you decide where to place your energy.

Yes, the most popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat will play a role. As will Google Plus, which is used frequently in Europe but has yet to fully catch on the U.S. LinkedIn is yet another effective tool, particularly for personal branding on the part of your influencers. But companies can also use LinkedIn to create or join their favorite groups, and share updates on their CSR activities with like-minded academics and CSR practitioners.

Depending on your goals, you may forgo the image-focused platforms of Pinterest and Instagram, but they may still be relevant in the context of the sustainability agenda. For instance, businesses can illustrate their CSR communication to stakeholders through visual and graphic content — which tends to be more shareable.

YouTube and Vimeo have positioned themselves as important social media channels for many consumers, particularly among millennials. These platforms give digital communicators a way to humanize or animate CSR communication through video content. And they can do double-duty. For instance, webinars and videos featuring university resources may also comprise lectures, documentaries and case studies that can then be shared online through the likes of Skillshare or Udemy.

The bottom line

The Internet and social media are shifting the power dynamics and opening new debates between business and society. Open platforms provide access to multiple stakeholders and facilitate two-way communication between participants. They increase the speed in communications as there are no gatekeeping mechanisms. Open platforms are therefore unique spaces in the emerging diversity and plurality of the sustainability agenda.

Participants in social media can no longer be classified as formal, functional or institutionalized stakeholders (e.g., as customers or NGOs). Yet, they may be categorized in relation to their changing affinities with the specific issues under discussion.

In conclusion, despite the promise that digital media has to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of corporate communication between organizations and the public, business implementation of online engagement is neither automatic nor easy.

The dialogic features that are enabled by blogs, social media and other digital tools may not necessarily result in improved stakeholder relationships. And businesses may inevitably have to deal with legitimacy constraints as they manage online engagements in different contexts.

At the same time, there are stakeholders — particularly customers — who are increasingly becoming more discerning about the digital media they consume. This allows genuine, well-crafted CSR communication to stand out, but it also means the typical corporate-speak may be quickly left behind.

Image credit: Pixabay

Dr Mark Anthony Camilleri is a resident academic lecturer in the Department of Corporate Communication at the University of Malta. He lectures in an international masters programme run by the University of Malta in collaboration with King’s College, University of London. Mark specialises in strategic management, marketing, research and evaluation. He successfully finalised his PhD (Management) in three years time at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland – where he was also nominated for his “Excellence in Teaching”. During the past years, Mark taught business subjects at under-graduate, vocational and post-graduate levels in Hong Kong, Malta and the UK.

Part of this article has appeared in Camilleri, M.A. (2017) Corporate Sustainability, Social Responsibility and Environmental Management: An Introduction to Theory and Practice with Case Studies. Springer International. http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319468488

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