Engage 2010 Conference: A Virtual Immersion in CSR

On Wednesday I attended PR Newswire’s Engage 2010 Conference from the comfort of my home office and dining room.  I admit that I had a little trepidation.  My experience dealing with web conference platforms from past sales and training jobs frequently ended up with dropped calls, bad echoes, blue screens of death, and frozen screens.  But I have to say that Engage 2010 was not only a success for its performance, but for the content related to corporate social responsibility.

Having suffered through Second Life thanks to a graduate business technology class that required us to create avatars, I expected a morning glued to my computer would leave me even more jaded about a world to which I admit I am hardly an early adopter.  At the same time, I wanted the event to succeed:  attending conferences in far-flung places like Amsterdam and Seoul are certainly exotic and create lasting memories, but are also expensive, create a huge carbon footprint, and even with the best intentions can leave you with more plastic gadgets and marketing collateral than best practices and new insights.  Engage 2010 indeed was worth the time invested.

First, I attended the Exhibit Hall, full of CSR thought leaders including Justmeans, Sustainable Life Media, CSRWire, and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).  Elaine Cohen, who runs her CSR advisory BeyondBusiness from Israel, also had a booth, and gave out virtual Chunky Monkey ice cream.  Booth workers were available for a group or individual chat, and actually had substance, rather than the typical “LOL” chat banter of which I grew weary years ago.

Eventually I wandered into the “Auditorium,” where the plenary sessions and keynotes occurred.  Some takeaways from the conference included:

Financial reporting agencies and investment advisors are reviewing more CSR reports.  Mike Wallace, GRI’s Director of Sustainability Reporting Framework, showed compelling graphs and data explaining how more public companies are strengthening their sustainability reporting, and in the long run perform better because of increased transparency.  Having said that, even though 4,000 companies will issue CSR reports in 2010, that leaves 76,000 medium and large companies—expect more growth in the coming decade.

Companies must involve their stakeholders and customers.  The days of tucking away that pretty CSR report in a PDF format are ending.  Timberland, which has been a leader in interactive CSR reporting, has been successful at giving consumers to share their ideas in the apparel manufacturer’s activities.

Crowdsourcing is mainstream.  Companies including Pepsi, Chase, and Petrobras are allowing the general public to give input and have a final say in the company’s philanthropic and social entrepreneurship activities.  For company executives and boards of directors to insist on direct control of their companies’ campaigns is shortsighted in a world where everyone wants a say—and can easily express it.

Go mobile.  Email is so passé, and while it may not suffer the same fate as snail mail in the mid-1990s, anyone younger than 35 lives off a smart phone, not a laptop.  That certainly resonated with me as I send Twitter updates almost exclusively via my Blackberry.  If a company wants to inspire and motivate your stakeholders, they need to master the art of communicating through hand-held devices for future campaigns.

At a time when budgets are slashed and travel is more ordeal than pleasure, virtual conferences will be critical for the debate of issues like CSR—and their low cost will make for an easier and cost-effective means for sharing ideas.  Best of all, it works!

Were you at the conference?  If so, share your thoughts.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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