With a Tweet & a Like, spreading sustainability alike

— Dwayne Baraka

Social Media can help transform your Sustainability programmes and commitment into something that creates engagement and loyalty from customers and employees. Unfortunately it can also kill your Sustainability overnight.

Sustainability and Social Media

Sustainability awards are common. There are all sorts of sustainability awards that companies love to win: from community initiatives that rely on proving their social impact to branding awards. There are also hundreds of awards for social media – either as a part of communications, or from some other perspective, like employee engagement, customer engagement or best community building.

Perhaps surprisingly there are very few awards specifically for Sustainability and Social Media, although the Webby Awards have a CSR Campaigns category. Lundquist, a consultancy that specialises in CSR online communications, including flirting with CSR Social Media Awards, recently asked “Can we really talk about online stakeholder engagement when 60% of companies don’t respond to email?“. It’s a fair question.

On reflection, maybe that’s not entirely surprising – many companies still try to focus their CSR messaging on push messaging, which means that social media (usually) isn’t a good forum. But it is a bit strange that sustainability, which has stakeholder engagement at its core, isn’t doing more to … well … engage stakeholders.

Top 10 Use of BrandsIn any case, Sustainly produce a Social Media Sustainability Index, which studies 475 companies that have a focus on sustainability for their use of social media. It makes for interesting reading. About half of those companies (233) are using social media in relation to their sustainability programmes, and apparently in improving ways. They don’t rate the effectiveness of social media against the effectiveness of sustainability (surely this is a market niche that needs expoiting), but they do reveal some interesting things about how companies communicate sustainability through some brands and not others (see above). Wizness also have something of a Social Media Sustainability Index (SNAP!), although some of their updates look a little more like an ad for their services than like pure research.

It has also been interesting to watch some of the campaign-based NGOs embracing social media, like Oxfam’s Behind the Brand which is using a combination of website, email and social media promotion to get people more interested in what the owner of top brands are doing on the CR issues most relevant (arguably) in the food chain.

How Social Media Can Kill Strategic CSR

Social Media can kill strategic CSR in two main ways.

Firstly, social media is quite a hot-headed little beastie. An issue that no-one has heard of before can suddenly trend and reach critical mass, almost overnight. That’s a rare occurence, but possible. Of course, some companies have tried to use social media as something of an indicator of the most relevant CSR issues for them, and that usually ends in disaster. By responding to the threats of social media, companies don’t spend an appropriate amount of time working out just what the most important CSR issues are for their business. By responding to the ‘hot’ topic, they are diverting resources away from the issues that will create more long-term value (by reducing risk, increasing opportunity or creating brand trust).

Although lots of brands use social media to push their messaging, failing to grasp that users may want to respond and be listened to via social media will almost always end in disaster, as it did for Volkswagen in 2012. Deleting people’s social media posts simply isn’t an appropriate way to use social media, and will really upset loads of people. One of the really useful things about social media is that it can facilitate unmediated access to end users and other stakeholders, which is a key feature of good CSR.

How Strategic CSR Can Kill Social Media

I’m not going to let the otherwise calm function of CSR off the hook though. There is no doubt that one of the ways companies have responded to CSR is to increase the amount of reporting that they do. Reporting on CSR issues is often approached with a keen eye on transparency on things like GRI, the DJSI or some other framework. The temptation is to tick the box and think that the job’s done. That’s a push messaging approach to CSR. Of course, the issues that interest people aren’t always captured by the GRI (not that it claims to do that), and besides, the CSR agenda (and people’s related expectations) are moving so fast that social media can and does inform companies of the next big issue.

By assuming that all the issues in a chosen framework cover the field of CSR, it’s tempting to stop listening and simply point to the CSR report. That really doesn’t work anymore, and companies need to be listening to social media to drive engagement with stakeholders that can affect their business. Failing to keep extending the reach of CSR through the business will lead to myopia that prevents identification of relevant issues.


How Social Media Can Support Strategic CSR

My Top Tips for embracing social media are:


  • Use it to engage otherwise hard to reach groups
  • Listen to it and what people are saying
  • Use it for marketing
  • Think about how to engage your employees (and how they can benefit from engaging with you)
  • Use it to make CSR more visible
  • Create trust on issues that matter for your business
  • Be painfully honest
  • Use it to ask questions
  • Include it as part of your CSR communications
  • Say sorry if you did something wrong
  • Have a social identity before you use social media – why should people care about what you do?
  • Your best storytelling on social media (longer formats of course)


  • Ignore it
  • Delete posts you don’t like (seriously, are you that fragile?)
  • Use it ONLY for marketing
  • Pretend something is true if it isn’t
  • Treat it as a ‘push’ channel
  • Miss the opportunity to tell interested people what you are doing
  • Brag more than you should (just because it’s progress for you doesn’t mean it is industry leading)

How about some examples you say?

Here you are then:

B2B and Social Media – OR – How Maersk is winning on social media

You would expect that Maersk, a company that makes its money from shipping and oil extraction, and does so by selling to a relatively small number of large business clients, would be well behind on any kind of social media strategy. They ostensibly don’t have any significant consumer facing presence, and don’t appear to need the direct interaction that social media facilitates.

But they do have a lot of employees, many of whom live away from home and/or do lots of travelling. They encourage the use of facebook as a way to facilitate team and family building for their most remote workers. They also use it to communicate with people affected (family etc…) by incidents or delays on shipping routes.

Apparently a quasi-autistic obsession with transport isn’t limited to train-spotters. For Maersk, they receive a surprising amount of correspondence about their ships (ship-spotting) and also about their shipping containers (container-spotting).

Freight ContainersWhile others write them off as something of a nuisance, Maersk has chosen to facilitate interaction with the obsessive types. By listening, they were able to discover new ways of thinking about their business that helped them to set up an industry group on LinkedIn, which in turn helped them to identify a collapsible shipping container as a possible innovation in the sector. Their Facebook page is part update, part marketing and part pure education on things like the challenges of shipping through icy waters.

As a result, they have a very strategic approach, which they’ve been talking about since just after they started in 2011. Their more than 1,500,000 fans on Facebook (many consumer brands dream of numbers like that) mostly speak highly of them, so much so that they are second only to Lego in terms of brand interaction on Facebook.

Say what else you will about Maersk, who make a lot of money extracting and shipping oil, but they’ve really put their thinking caps on when it comes to social media. Learn more about how they did it here and for a bit more on their different strategies for each of the social media channels, here.

The author is founder and CEO of Value CSR, a consultancy which helps organisations identify their most material CSR metrics and also helps them calculate the value that CSR unlocks. Follow him @baraka_dwayne and write to him at dwayne.baraka@valuecsr.com

This article was originally published on http://www.dwaynebaraka.com/blog/2014/05/28/sustainability-and-social-media/


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