New Media and CSR: Communicating Corporate Good, moderated by TriplePundit's very own Nick Aster, identified four major emerging trends in Corporate Social Responsibility in a free-wheeling discussion between:
Here's the bottom line:
ONE: Your brand is decreasingly under your control
In the brave new world of social media, your brand is decreasingly under your control. You can publish all the fancy CSR reports you want, but it only takes one ill-timed (or ill-considered) tweet to generate a firestorm of negative publicity. What's a company to do?
You've got to be in the game, engaging with stakeholders and addressing the tough questions. Hard to stomach, perhaps, but, as Seventh Generation's Chris Miller put it, "To sit it out is more risky than playing." The goal, according to Mitch Baranowski of BBMG, is to hold space for a conversation about your brand. The sustainable brand of the 21st Century, he says, has three dimensions: practical usefulness, a beneficial social and environmental dimension, and a tribal dimension that connects people to shared values.
To tell a 21st century story about how you're solving 21st century problems, you need 21st century tools. For interesting examples, Dale Hart of Methodologie suggests Coke's "Arctic Home" project, and RecycleBank.
But, like it or not, the tools of CSR 2.0 require an often unpredictable dialogue -- not a simple broadcast message. Which leads us to the second trend.
TWO: Transparency is terrifying, but authenticity is the reward
All the panelists agreed: Complete transparency is terrifying to companies. They're simply not used to it, and the lawyers really, really hate it.
Too bad. As Alcatel-Lucent's Christine Diamente noted, people want to know where their products are coming from, and companies can't hide. If you don't provide it, they'll get the information somewhere else. Do you want your customers to find out about the working conditions in your factories on Frontline? Probably not.
Ironically, being transparent -- even about your faults -- can lead to increased stakeholder engagement. For example, Patagonia's "Footprint Chronicles" provides useful information on the environmental pros and cons of different items. It's generated great buzz, and customers love it. It many ways it's highly transparent, but inevitably it leaves some things out. What's the total carbon footprint of the company? Who knows? But I can see a cool video of the childcare facility in their Mexican factory, and find out how far my new jacket traveled to get to me!
While Patagonia's approach isn't completely perfect, it's great at connecting the back story to the brand story, a tactic endorsed by Baranowski. Of course, you can't put lipstick on a pig, but you can increase your perceived authenticity by being generally transparent about your good stories, and your bad ones. (In other words, be "Flawesome" -- awesome by exposing your flaws.)
Fine, you say. That's all well and good for a company like Patagonia that takes pride in their sustainability. My company's not based on those ideals, and we're not going to deal with this transparent CSR 2.0 stuff!
THREE: CSR is a business imperative
If that's your attitude, it's time to reconsider. As several panelists noted, CSR is a business imperative.
How can organizations manage this new pressure?
Baranowski offered several suggestions:
Similarly, customers who care about CSR are twice as likely to reward a company for their sustainability activities. However, they're also twice as likely to punish a company when they're disappointed.
It's a new world out there, and companies have to engage. If they don't, someone else will tell their stories for them!
Alison Monahan is a web developer, turned lawyer, turned entrepreneur. She runs The Girl's Guide to Law School and co-founded the Law School Toolbox. You'll find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS.
Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School, and is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and other blogs. She's a former patent litigator, an ex-web developer, and a trained architect. She writes and Tweets at the intersection of law, technology, design, and business, drawing on her unique background and experience to bridge these worlds for her readers.