A Difficult Task: Corporate Social Responsibility in the Age of Social Media

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Digital entertainment giant Sony and the non-profit World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) put one simple question onto the web in September 2010: “How can today’s technology help us to make the most of our planet’s resources?” It was the kick-off for their initiative called Open Planet Ideas (OPI). Participants from nearly 200 countries joined the journey to find an answer.

In doing so, they identified more than 300 challenges our world faces at the moment. For instance, how do we turn our behaviours less resource-intensive? And how to turn waste into something useful? Over the course of nine weeks, the participants came up with 400 answers on how to tackle those challenges. All those concepts repurpose technology to serve the environment: fire detecting devices to protect forests, a tool that allows a neighbourhood to coordinate their journeys and avoid travelling alone, or a dynamic map of drinking water supply for water-scarce areas are just some examples of the wide range of creative solutions proposed.

The potential of the crowd: crowdsourcing sustainability

“One brain is good, many brains are unbeatable,” is the philosophy of Sony and WWF’s initiative OPI. Harnessing the so-called potential of the crowd, Sony and WWF took the plunge to crowdsource solutions to sustainability problems.

OPI is one example of how social media could change the face of a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. OPI was clearly set in the framework of external communications: The challenge built up on Sony’s technological products that were put into the game as “building blocks to inspire you.” And the related YouTube video was titled “Help Protect the Environment With Sony”.

However, that was not everything. In March 2012, Sony announced the launch of +u, an app that was chosen as the winning solution of the OPI-initiative. The mobile open source app combines elements of geolocalisation and gaming and connects those looking for volunteering opportunities with local projects close to them. The app was launched in collaboration with British youth support and volunteering organisation Youthnet and should “provide instant access to ‘Do-it.org’, the UK’s largest database for volunteer opportunities,” Youthnet explains.

This little bit that goes beyond the Public Relations aspect of CSR is exactly what consumers recognize: While a current international CSR study by Cone Communications underlines CSR as an important part of business strategy, the study also reveals “an increasingly social, savvy consumer who is looking for proof of progress,” says Alison DaSilva, executive vice president for Research & Insights at Cone Communications. Nearly two-thirds of consumers asked say they use social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter to engage with businesses on CSR topics.

Companies should partner with citizens to affect change

However, while businesses have embraced social media for communication and advertising, CSR lags behind. Nevertheless, the trend is clear. The SMI Wizness Social Media Sustainability Index looks at how global publicly listed companies use social media tools to communicate their “green” activities. In 2011, out of 400 companies, one third was found to have a dedicated social media presence. For the year 2012, the latest numbers report nearly half of the companies (180) to drive a sustainability campaign on social media.

According to the study, especially consumers in emerging markets want to engage in CSR: Brazilians, for example, “have among the highest expectations for business, feel most individually empowered to drive change, and are most actively engaged in social and environmental issues, from volunteering to advocating for change” and in China “Social Responsibility is a near-universal mindset.” The logical conclusion for Da Silva: “Companies have a tremendous opportunity to partner with enthusiastic global citizens to affect change.“ As such, a so called “CSR 2.0” could be an evolution of CSR as it is known today: a partnership between companies and consumers working for the greater good.

Companies are not ready for CSR 2.0

However, while consumers demand this new understanding of CSR, companies are not yet ready to go along with it. At least if one looks a bit closer at pioneering examples such as OPI and the winning app +u: The press information announcing the launch was actually its last sign of life. One can neither find a mobile version of Do-it.org, nor download the app +u on Sony’s webpage. In addition, neither Sony’s nor Youthnet’s press departments provided information to clarify those circumstances. What one can find, though, is a final report on OPI that archives the other innovative thoughts and ideas instead of continuing this single project and harnessing its full potential.

A real commitment to CSR 2.0, instead, should work in a long-term perspective and as a continued partnership. It joins society’s forces in order to tackle major challenges our world is confronted with today. It demands a full-hearted commitment of all involved. And companies, indeed, are a major part in it.

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