The convergence of social media and corporate responsibility

In the early 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg invented a mechanical movable-type printing process that enabled the first mass production of books.  Within decades, the technology had spread across Europe, and the growing availability and affordability of the printed word revolutionized society.  The flow of information and ideas fuelled the Reformation and the French Revolution, broke down strongholds of power, whether political or religious, and contributed to the democratization not only of societies but of knowledge itself.

Over time, we’ve witnessed the emergence of mass media, designed and used to broadcast information from and by a small group to a large one.  This communications audience is, essentially, a mass society of undifferentiated individuals.  It receives information.

However, social media turns a receptive mass society into a creative public.  Information doesn’t just flow from a small group to a large one, and information creation isn’t just the purview of the powerful elite anymore.  The trickling democratization of knowledge that began with the Gutenberg press, social media is making a flood.

Now, humans have always been social creatures.  It’s not social networking that’s new.  Rather, it’s the development of new technologies at a time of rapid globalization and increasing awareness of humanity’s impact on the Earth that have converged to create the perfect storm of new social media.

But when you think about this convergence of globalization, growing public awareness about pressing natural and social challenges, and our long-standing need and desire for social engagement, and you filter these through a lens of enabling Web 2.0 technologies, what you get isn’t darkness, but light.

Indeed, when you look at it from a corporate responsibility perspective, social media is first and foremost about transparency.

And that’s why social media is a game-changer.

From a corporate responsibility perspective, this is where the rubber hits the road.

Mobile technologies are making it much easier for consumers to quickly access information – credible third-party information, mind you – about companies and their products, and social media are making it much easier for consumers to share their preferences – for better and for worse – with their networks.  (Just take a look at GoodGuide.)

Unlike traditional media, a company no longer dominates the messaging around its brand on social media.  The vast majority of social media content is user-generated, and any attempt to censor or stifle user content is likely to be met with distrust and suspicion, at best, and a significant backlash, at worst.

This signals an important shift in communications and information flow from the traditional ‘push’ model common to mass media, in which a company may craft and deliver messages to its stakeholders (often a difference message for different stakeholders), to a “pull” model, in which company and stakeholders are on a more even footing, and what is being said by one may be heard by all.  In this “pull” model, stakeholders themselves define their own information requirements and actively seek out the sources, connections, and networks that will meet them.

[And while this might seem scary to some, it also represents one of the great opportunities that social media offers:  collaboration.  If you view each one of these voices not as a threat but as an opportunity to engage and to learn, you can leverage social media to add value to your business.  I’ll explore collaboration as a theme in future posts.]

Social media opens up the conversation about the responsibility of corporations to contribute to the sustainable development goals of society.  On a flight to Toronto not long ago, I happened to see a commercial for the financial institution, HSBC; in it, the narrator remarks, “when people ask me what business I’m in, I ask ‘what business should I be in?’”.  I think social media will force companies to ask that question more often and of a wider audience than in the past.

At the same time, I think – I hope – we will begin to see a broader conversation emerging about shared responsibility, about the responsibility of each of us as individual consumers and investors to be accountable for the impact of our decisions.  It has been said by others before me that, when something is wrong, those who have the ability to act have the responsibility to act.  The democratization of knowledge and our economy by the advent of social media make it exceedingly difficult for corporations and individuals to ignore the information now increasingly available to us.  Like taking the proverbial Red Pill, you can’t un-know.  And knowledge, particularly shared knowledge, is a significant impetus for change.  Through social media, we are developing new abilities, and therefore responsibilities, to act.

Those of you who have been in the corporate responsibility space for at least a decade will appreciate what a refreshing change this is from pushing a rope.  From just a few short years ago, when being a corporate responsibility advocate was often like being a voice in the wilderness, we suddenly have the capacity to make everyone a corporate responsibility advocate.  And that’s cause for celebration.

  1. Great minds think alike!

    I was finishing an article for an online magazine around a working title of the ‘convergence of CSR & social media’ and then saw this! Scarily coincidental.

    I’ll let you know when my angle of the story is up and running.


    • Funny!
      This post is actually a condensed version of a talk I gave at the Conference Board of Canada’s “Social Media and CSR” conference in Toronto in May. I covered more ground, like the attributes of social media that make it particularly relevant to CR, and the opportunities it presents, like collaboration. Some of this might find its way into a future post.

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