Social Media and Corporate Social Responsibility: Who’s In Control?


In June I attended the #promise conference in  New York City, which brought together a congregation of companies that had  promised to do good for the world.  It was sponsored by a number of major corporations who were using social media as a platform for communicating their  efforts in charitable pursuits. PepsiCo, both a sponsor and  a featured panel speaker at the event, spoke at length about the success of  Pepsi Refresh, a social media initiative now impossible to miss.  They  talked about the great brand engagement they’ve experienced with the campaign,  various social capabilities that have allowed them to reach out to consumers  in new and exciting ways, and how giving away millions of dollars to good  causes has, in turn, produced a more loyal consumer.

Not a moment into the Pepsi panel and the live twitter feeds on  either side of the stage were aflutter.  Someone had tweeted asking why  Pepsi had agreed to serve Aquafina bottled water, a plastic bottle made from  BP petroleum, which was currently leaking all over the Gulf Coast?  This  opened up a floodgate and the retweets started pouring in.  To Pepsi’s  credit, they never stopped the conversation.  It just sat there scrolling  on the screen as their marketing rep continued to expound on the work of the  Refresh project.

Consumers and brands never used to have this  type of relationship.  Grievances were either aired to customer service  reps or consumer publications.  CSR programs, if companies had them, were  privately invested in.  In the early days of the Internet, they may have  been a tab on a website.  But companies didn’t have to answer to  consumers.  You either bought their products or you didn’t.  Simple  enough.

But here we are in a new world.  One where the word  on everyone’s mind is “transparency, transparency, transparency.” Brands know  and fear this aspect of social media.  It opens you up to your consumer  in ways that are mutually empowering. You can talk to people more directly  about their interests, their passions, reach them where they are most active,  in the moment, one-on-one.  Consumers, in turn, can demand more from you.   They create a powerful network of influencers and tastemakers.   They expect you to answer to them.  They expect you to be honest  with them.  If they sense you are faking it, they will rat you out.

This was all one thing when it was just about selling  products.  But now companies have to work harder to sell themselves.   Consumers are more and more are demanding for brands to be “good”– to do  the right thing by your suppliers, staff, give back to the community and be  environmentally friendly. Its no surprise that Undercover Boss became such a  runaway hit. It’s as if the digital consumer is demanding, “Don’t just tell me  what you do.  Show me who you are and I will tell you if you can play in  my world.”  Facebook and Twitter provide easy and fast ways for companies  to appear to be doing the right thing, while continuing to drive profit and  brand loyalty.

Innovative new companies are leading the wave with  social good being part of their business objectives. David Dorfman, the  founder of Itzso, works with artisans in developing countries to create  fairtrade fashion and accessories.  While creating high-fashion products  that will appeal to the consumer is crucial, Itzso was primarily created for  the purpose of establishing sustainability in underdeveloped countries.   “These days the consumer isn’t given many fair trade, non-mass produced  options in fashion,” says Dorfman, “The more people connect with the fabric  they are putting over their bodies and the accessories they are decorating  themselves with, the more they connect with themselves and the world around  them.”  Dorfman believes it is not enough just to have a beautiful  design, it needs to be made in a way that honors everyone involved.  The  process of any company should be fair from beginning to end.  Imagine if  every company did its part, what would our consumer society look like  then?

Here is video of David speaking about being fashionably responsible:

Both  companies and consumers are continuing to define what it means to be socially  responsible in a social media world.  And each side is proceeding with caution, wondering who they can trust and just how much.  As companies  work harder and harder to campaign “goodness” in the social media space, consumers also have to work harder to ask themselves – are the right people  benefiting here?

We, too, have a responsibility to the causes we  support.


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