Complete with a hash tag symbol, the #Promise event held during Internet Week in New York last week was corporate sponsorship and social media at its best. With its dizzying digital presence and overwhelmingly real-time conversations, it was like having a multitude of dialogues at any given moment. Featuring marketing heads from General Electric (GE), PepsiCo, Timberland, MTV and Nokia, the day-long conference evoked mixed responses from the audience, ranging from skepticism to all-out admiration. And streaming in real time on the Twitter feed #thepromise, prominently featured on two huge displays for all to see and comment on.
While the conference's attempt was a noble one— showcasing corporate social responsibility commitments by some of the world's leading global companies—it gradually turned into a platform for companies to pitch their CSR initiatives at a well-targeted audience (Registrants were asked to make a "promise" on behalf of their company/themselves toward corporate social responsibility to qualify, which ensured a passionate audience committed to corporate responsibility). The two themes that emerged:
Recognition of the growing role of social media in business strategy
Gray area: How to use it to their best advantage, whether that is for marketing purposes, community engagement or plain and simple advertising.
Conclusion: A formulaic solution that can be applied toward their marketing/PR/advertising campaigns.
Takeaway: Playing with the many options social media presents today can be a gradual process, which over time finesses into a distinct strategy, including elements of outreach (HP through their Innovation Portal), engagement (Pepsi Refresh Project, Dell Go Green, Timberland's Earthkeepers), and active involvement (Nike, Campbell's). Clearly, a company's products and services, and current brand image help shape the ultimate strategy, as no one size fits all.
There seemed to be almost an unwritten consensus among the speakers that there was a strong need for a, and if possible standardized, Social Media Strategy that could objectively give them an itemized direction of steps to employ. All the prominent avenues came into play with several pages of PowerPoint devoted to screenshots of Facebook fan pages, Twitter streams and Dugg articles.
GE's Manager of International Advertising Ed Downing addressed this candidly at a mid-day panel he shared with Ogilvy's Planning Director Evan Slater and TED Media Executive Producer June Cohen. Discussing social media and the authenticity of some of the conversations that it has made possible, Downing emphasized that for multinational companies like GE, measuring impact, remained a challenge. "There is still a big disconnect with big corporations like GE. We have a strategy somewhat in place and we know where we want to go, but we're still figuring out the middle part—the brand impact part," he said. That is, how does GE's large lineup of products affect their consumers and local as well as global non-consumer communities?
Slater gave high points to American Express' Members project from a few years ago, noting that the success of this project that built on social media and consumer engagement was largely the force behind what is called cause marketing today.
"Social media is all about the social AND the engagement, not just about talking AT them," he said. Facebook's former founder Chris Hughes alluded to this in a separate panel noting that if you make "engagement simple and intuitive, people will use the service." And that this can be to your brand's advantage.
Evolution of Corporate social responsibility in the C-suite
"Corporate social responsibility and the many variants of the term are going to be this decade's game changer"
Gray area: CSR, much like social media, must be contextual for a company, its products as well as its ideology. And companies are grappling most with that last bit: ideology. Never before has ideology been thrown out in the same sentence as business strategy and bottom line. What does CSR mean for them beyond philanthropy and community development?
Conclusion: Focus on core area within the company and build a CSR campaign surrounding that, i.e., Pepsi's "performance with purpose" campaign, Timberland's tree planting initiative, and GE's culture of health.
Takeaway: Corporate sustainability, while emerging as a buzzword across industries, remains pigeon-holed with PR and marketing. Remember the recent McKinsey Quarterly survey that reported most CEOs continue to view sustainability as a useful buzzword for PR? More of the same was heard at the conference. As keynote interviewee Douglas Rushkoff, author of Life, Inc., and popular media columnist, put it, "If a company is in the business of producing sustainable products, it doesn’t have to spend money and resources on advertising its goodwill. A company's brand speaks for itself," ending it with a "If you do good, the rest will follow."
However, Rushkoff's open criticism doesn’t resonate with some of corporate America's harshest critics who argue that for CSR to be real and practical, must become an integral part of business strategy as well as long term planning. It must also relate to the workforce and their social as well as corporate wellbeing. And it has the danger of coming off as idealistic. Just going by the live Twitter stream however, a majority of the tweeters loved his fight against rhetoric and false promises.
Rushkoff's comment on what has become a common rephrase for companies in their pursuit of becoming better corporate citizens, i.e., employee engagement, also got a lot of play from the Twitter-friendly audience. Calling employee engagement one-sided and a surrender to the big boss, he said, "Participatory culture works until people realize big corporations are extracting value from them without compensation. "
Of course, no discussion on corporate responsibility can be complete without bringing up BP, and Slater once again took the lead on it by answering a self-imposed question: "What if BP had proactively embraced their network" than having to react once the situation was out of control? "The stakeholders could have done some social media outreach," he said adding, "I can bet that the difference would have been huge. Instead of just recruiting the smartest people, make the entire world your problem solvers." Much has been written about the many steps BP could have taken to prevent—if not the oil spill—at least the negative press and the reputational fallout. Here's a recent comparison I did between two iconic brands of this generation: BP and Goldman Sachs.
Although the setting and the organizers—ThinkSocial at the Paley Center for Media, a nonprofit initiative that advances use of social and mobile media for public purposes, and PepsiCo—had the potential of becoming key influencers for CSR, the conference largely fell short of its purpose, leaving us at best with insights into big brand as well as a few well-moderated panels on the role of social media in business strategy.
Next up: Observations and key comments from the GE, PepsiCo and Timberland on their CSR initiatives, their "promise" and what the motivation was behind these.
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