Social Media Engagement and Leadership In a Responsible World
Ann M. Charles is the founder and CEO of social media branding agency BRANDfog. She is also the producer of the Great Leaders Conference (GLC), scheduled to be held in New York City in October. Charles started BRANDfog in 2009 after almost 20 years in marketing with companies like Sony Electronics and Viewpoint. BRANDfog's mission is to assist CEOs in becoming involved with social media by offering blogging, ghostwriting and CSR advisory services.
Her intent for the conference is similar. Charles wants the conference to become an annual, exclusive forum for chief executives to network and collaborate on what corporate responsibility means for their respective companies, or as she puts it, responsible leadership practices. In a chat with Vault's CSR Editor Aman Singh, she discusses her motivation behind the venture, why the GLC conference is an invitation-only event and what job seekers, students and professionals interested in infusing sustainability in their careers can hope to gain from the event.
What does BRANDfog do?
I founded BRANDfog in 2009. We provide CSR consulting to CEOs as well as executive branding across social media. I also do ghost writing and blogging for CEOs.
A CEO only has so much time in a day. At the same time, market trends dictate that they be visible in social media because their customers expect it and their constituents expect it. This is what led to BRANDfog. Initially, I wanted to focus on corporate philanthropy, but CSR has emerged as an all- encompassing practice that covers everything that people are doing for the triple bottom line. And so, it became a natural extension of my business.
What have your interactions with management revealed about their understanding of CSR?
For most of them, there is a real lack of understanding of what it involves, and no real reluctance. Everyone I have talked to across industries, save finance and big pharma, want to get involved in some way or another. They know that at a base level this is going to be good for their share holders, customers and employees. It's also a matter of figuring out what the right approach is: Should we get involved with organizations like Room to Read or is it about looking within the company on how we treat our employees?
At a recent TED conference, where I invited Room to Read founder John Wood to talk about corporate social responsibility, it struck me on how much hunger there was for an understanding about CSR, i.e., the real role of sustainable practices and what the different areas are that companies need to think about in terms of being socially responsible. It's becoming evident that new graduates want to go work for companies with good reputations. Customers too, if given the choice, will buy products from companies that have a better reputation for being socially responsible.
What do you hope to accomplish with the upcoming Great Leaders Conference in October? And why is it aimed exclusively for CEOs?
The goal of the conference is to raise awareness regarding CSR by highlighting the work of some of the great leaders in corporate America. I felt it would be more impactful if we actually had CEOs talking about what it is that they're doing and telling people their stories in terms of corporate social responsibility. There are so many ways to put CSR in context for your company and perceive what's good for the company's bottom line.
On a broader level, this is not a CSR conference. It is the Great Leaders conference because it aims to highlight a cultural change among leadership. Leadership is changing on a number of fronts and very quickly, in a way that CEOs are really struggling with. For example, the social media perspective: Social media has blown the doors off the closed corporate culture, where customers want to know what the company stand for, what the CEO believes in, what the core values of the organization are, etc. In a way, companies can no longer control their messaging. There is a two-way exchange that can't be ignored today.
If your voice is not out there on social media talking about yourselves, your values, company culture, and/or moral compass, then somebody else will. This creates a vacuum where other people put up social media "pretend" twitter sites (Example: BP), and you lose control of your brand image quickly. Social media has played a huge role in forcing the hand of companies to talk about internal directional things that they maybe would not have made public in the past. Today, companies don't have a choice.
Progressive companies are coming out and getting in front of this trend and talking about their company's involvement with organizations like Teach for America and Room to Read.
Another important factor is the economic collapse. It has made society, as a whole, start to think. A lot of people are talking about the failure of the markets and foresight. Fundamentally though, it's a failure of leadership, it's about thinking about short term profits. That is a difficult thing that CEOs have to address.
They're also under a lot of pressure because very often they get shut down for introducing things that are long term in nature. Investors are not ready to hear that message yet, but I feel we're at a tipping point now where that is starting to be more acceptable. Companies are starting to talk about the work that they are doing outside the realm of profitability and taxes.
With this conference, my aim is to bring attention to the best examples of corporate leadership so that the audience, which will comprise of CEOs and senior level executives, can take that back to their company and further, think about incorporating the lessons into the culture of their own organizations.
Can you detail some of the speakers?
This isn't your typical CSR roundup. First off, Jeffrey Swartz of Timberland will be there. Personally, I find him very impressive because he's been doing environmentally responsible work for 10 to 12 years. He has introduced out-of-the-box thinking like getting his competitors to work with him on recycling, etc.
Then there is Tony Hsieh, from Zappos who will discuss the culture of being a CEO.
We will also hear from Elizabeth Coleman, who just wrote a book (Paradise beneath Her Feet: The Transformation of Women in the Middle East) and is a senior fellow in US Foreign Policy. Her experience in the role of women in the culture of leadership, and how that is changing, will be the focus of the talk. Her book essentially talks about microfinance and micro banking and how that's creating tremendous change for entrepreneurial women, their families and entire communities in the Middle East.
Since this is a closed event, is there anything that students and job seekers can look forward to?
For the conference itself, we're working with NYU Law to send some students who will work the event, be participants and take away what they can, and hopefully make it a part of their academics.
In terms of media presence, it's not that I don't want these messages to get out; I just want the conference itself to be as pristine as possible so that we can really accelerate the dialogue where it won't just become another business conference.
Post-event, we will release video content for everyone. We are also inviting select business and professional media members to not only attend the event, but also to engage with the speakers. I would love for the press to be an integral part of the event.