This piece by Jim Witkin originally appeared in Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog on May 14, 2012.
When a new law was being passed in the US requiring companies to report their use of minerals from conflict regions in the Congo, Tim Mohin, director of corporate responsibility at AMD learned about it first on Twitter. By monitoring keywords like #CSR and #sustainability, he says he learns something new everyday on topics essential for his job.
Corporate executives of all stripes have taken to Twitter, the online micro-blogging service, which topped 500 million members in February. The medium is particularly well suited for those in the CSR and sustainability areas, according to Susan McPherson, senior vice president with Fenton, a public-interest communications and CSR consultancy.
“The mantra of corporate social responsibility is transparency and open communications,” she says, “and social media channels like Twitter can lend credibility to these communications.”
Beyond simply promoting their own good deeds, CSR practitioners are using Twitter to build networks with their peers, keep abreast with the latest news and trends and connect directly with stakeholders.
Working for a B2B company offered him little direct interaction with the people who ultimately consumed Danisco products. “Twitter provided an avenue for stakeholder engagement that was not previously available to us,” he says.
Engaging directly with consumers can also have its challenges, however. “People push you in directions you never thought you needed to go,” comments Mr. Hogue. Following discussions with the #Danisco hashtag, one day he came across a series of tweets raising concerns about the safety of the company’s products.
He messaged the person who had initiated the conversation, a social activist who followed issues related to food additives. “We couldn’t dialogue deeply over Twitter”, he acknowledges, “but it allowed us to make contact, and we were able to continue the conversation through email and ultimately resolve her questions.”
Sustainability executives are also talking with one other on Twitter. Mohin notes that his Twitter community, which includes direct rivals, is more cooperative than competitive. He tweets on average five times a day, but most of these missives are retweets on newsworthy topics related to his industry, like the conflict minerals issue.
“We are all trying to solve fundamental social and environmental issues on a global scale so the right thing is to share that information,” he says. In a recent blog post, he coined the term “collaboratition“, a mashup of collaboration and competition, to describe his experience with open-source sharing among CSR professionals.
More organised discussions are taking place on Twitter too, like the biweekly #CSRchat hosted by McPherson. Recent chats have covered topics related to supply chain issues, employee engagement, human rights concerns, and corporate philanthropy. She moderates the hour-long chat sessions, which typically attract up to 150 participants including a mix of corporate execs, consultants, and industry watchdogs.
Regular tweeting can also help you get better at saying more with less thanks to the 140-character hard stop, according to Sue Stephenson, the Community Footprints vice president for the Ritz-Carlton hotel company. “The practice has helped me learn how to articulate my message very concisely,” a discipline, she says, which has spilled over into other areas of the company’s CSR communications.
Even with all this chatter, the real impact of social media on the business of social responsibility may yet be hard to quantify, especially when it comes to the execution of CSR programs.
Still, it meets the needs that go unmet by other communication methods like yearly CSR reports, believes Dave Stangis, the sustainability vice president for Campbell Soup. And most importantly, notes Stangis, Twitter “makes us think about communications as a constant stream, not an annual event.”
For CSR execs who have yet to jump in, Stephenson advises, “embrace it – the returns I’ve gotten have far exceeded the time I’ve spent.” And for those debating whether to tweet using their own names or a corporate CSR handle, McPherson suggests the content is more important than the actual messenger. “Who ever is tweeting on behalf of the company’s corporate responsibility initiatives,” she recommends, “should be authentic, approachable, open and conversational.”