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Can CSR Learn to Move Fast and Break Things?

March 12, 2012

Recently, the Contributions Council of The Conference Board, a group of CEOs of some of the nation's largest and most active corporate philanthropy and social responsibility programs, gathered to discuss the use of social media in our work.

With Facebook claiming over 800 million friends worldwide, Twitter with more than 500 million tweeters and LinkedIn with over 65 million professional users, social media is a force that can't be ignored. But, can it be harnessed to help corporations engage stakeholders in a CSR agenda? And, can CSR programs adopt the Facebook philosophy of "move fast and break things"?

There are many examples of corporations using social media to engage the public in voting on contributions to nonprofits. American Express's Partners in Preservation Program and Members Project, Pepsi's Refresh Project and Chase's Community Giving Program are prominent such initiatives.

Likewise, there are many examples of companies using social media for cause marketing programs: USA Today's "#AmericaWants" campaign, Mars' "Pedigree Adoption Drive," Haagen Dazs' "Help the Honey Bees" awareness campaign, Kraft's partnership with Feeding America, and Yahoo's "How Good Grows" initiative come to mind.

But, as Natalie Cowen, head of brand and communications for first direct, recently wrote in Econsultancy, "Very few brands seem to be effectively using social media to communicate their social responsibility initiatives."

Ms. Cowen goes on to suggest that this might be due to the mismatch of goals between marketing people, who often have the social media budgets, and CSR people, who are focused on delivering programs, but she asserts that this gap probably represents one of the biggest untapped opportunities in the history of CSR.

Network for Good and Zoetica have published an excellent guide for corporations who want to engage in on-line "social good" campaigns (which they define as "a form of cause marketing in which companies partner with causes and consumers to achieve social good"). Written by Kate Olsen and Geoff Livingston, the somewhat mis-titled "Cause Marketing through Social Media" guide contains excellent examples of successful "social good" campaigns and the thought that went into them. It also identifies key questions that companies should ask themselves and five steps they should take for creating successful campaigns:

  • Cover the basics (Why do it? Who will benefit? Who's the audience? Can you sell it?)
  • Frame the campaign (What's the social benefit? What's the link to your brand? Is your audience primed?)
  • Get people to act (Should you provide incentives? Is it easy to participate? Is there a sense of urgency?)
  • Build on momentum (Is there a competitive element? Will you give interim rewards?)
  • Be prepared for times of disaster (Do you offer a clear way to help? Can you amplify the impact?)

One speaker at the Contributions Council gathering asserted that "social is the new creative." He recommended that companies ask themselves the following questions before launching initiatives that use social media for CSR-related projects:

  • What is the social interaction?
  • What's the social currency?
  • What's the distribution?
  • What's the creative concept?

Most such campaigns are geared toward consumers, but at IBM, employees are encouraged to build their social networks by using channels like Facebook and Twitter to connect with nonprofit organizations and engage in volunteering and pro bono consulting. IBMers are given a training course on the use of social media, and various hashtags are suggested for use in tweets and postings. Many other companies, however, restrict their employees' access to social media for fear of data security breaches, adding distractions to the workplace or cost.

But, as the recent on-line battle between Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood shows, companies and nonprofit organizations ignore the power of social media at their peril.

As Ms. Cowan states: "social media is essentially about empowering people by allowing like-minded individuals to come together around ideas regardless of their geography, and this is where brands can really make a difference by providing the resources to make that engagement richer, easier and more fulfilling."

What do you think? How can companies better utilize social media to further CSR goals?

Let us know by clicking here.

P.S. Did you know that Americans spend more than 100,000 years (yes, that's years) per month on Facebook?


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