Social Media, Corporate Responsibility, and the Future of CR Communications

Oct 26, 2011 12:40 PM ET

Posted by Henry Frechette


I was a guest at a recent presentation of the 2011 Cone Corporate Responsibility (CR) Opportunity Study and I was impressed by the scope and depth of the research. The study investigates CR across ten countries that combine to form the world’s leading GDPs as well as over half its population. It used more than 10,000 participants, and reached out to local experts from each country to create what may be the largest and most complete global corporate responsibility resource available. And while there are countless interesting statistics, none jumped out more to me more than those in the section on communication, or perhaps the disparity therein. Most notably, it would seem that despite all the news, studies, and research that point to social media as the tool for communications, this does not apply to communicating CR efforts. A paltry 7% of people globally prefer to get their CR news from social media. But if we dig deeper, it seems this number is not all that appears to be.   

According to the study, 93% of global participants want to know what companies are doing. Yet, when given information, 71% are confused by the messages companies use to talk about their CR efforts and/or 89% believe companies only report the positive while withholding the negative. Finally, 91% - and remember, this is a representation of the entire world - also want their voices to be heard. To reduce these stats into simple terms: people want to know what CR efforts companies are undertaking, they don’t understand or doubt the information they hear about them, and they want to talk about it. In other words people want to hear from you, understand you, and talk to you. In its simplest form: people want to have a discussion about CR.

Given this these facts, the question then becomes: is there a cheap and effective way to have this discussion? Ten years ago companies and organizations might have wondered how to address this gap in communication without having to hire an army of telephone operators or website monitors. But today, social media would seem to provide the solution. There are countless case studies demonstrating the benefit-if-not-necessity for social media. For example, software company Infusionsoft was able to increase customer satisfaction by 10% while reaching 230% more clients per agent through social media.[1] Similarly, Dell went from being one of the most hated and ignorant companies with regards to social media to using Twitter effectively to generate over $1 million in revenue.[2] Communications giant Cisco boasted in one of its case studies that social media helped it save $100K in a product launch and reach more people at one-sixth of the cost of a traditional launch.[3] Not to mention social media successes for Best Buy,, Moviefone, Starbucks, and so on. Let the fact that a new Booz & Company study shows 96% of companies plan to increase investment in social media-related capabilities cement that social media is the tool to reach people.

But these cases are mostly about products and brands and stray from the often less marketable CR. In this instance, social media does not present a simple panacea, at least not yet. The Cone study found that with regards to hearing about CR efforts, 21% of global consumers still prefer to hear a company’s CR message or efforts from traditional media (Television) and again, only 7% through social media. Given the skyrocketing numbers for social media use, this percentage might seem staggering, but this should not discourage those who are banking on your online presence getting your efforts heard. For one thing, the combining of social media, website, and mobile as channels of CR communication results in 21% of how participants prefer to get their CR information, a percentage that rivals traditional media. But this misses the point.

More than any other platform, social media is expanding. According to the Nielsen “Global Faces and Networked Places” study, two-thirds of the world’s internet population visit social networking sites and that number is only going to go up. A recent Experian Simmons study found that right now in the US, a near-perfect 97% adults 18-24 use social media.  This is an important statistic as the average age of the Cone participant was 42, which marks slightly lower in the social media saturated younger generation. As the 18-24 demographic continues to age, the social media world will become increasingly larger, more saturated, and relied upon for all information gathering.   

Perhaps most importantly, the very nature of “traditional media” is being overtaken by social media. Companies like Macy’s, Smirnoff, and Carnival Cruises have actually spent television ad time promoting their social media accounts. And let’s not forget PepsiCo.’s choice to forego Superbowl commercials in favor of social advertising.[4] In fact, increasingly television-advertising budgets are now being shifted over to social media departments. Numerous companies like General Sentiment and Bluefin Labs are even developing tools to map social-media chatter onto TV commercials to yield new marketing insights. By “following the money,” we can see clear evidence that social media matters more to communications professionals for reaching people than ever before and this trend shows no signs of slowing down.

So we are bearing witness to the barriers of distinct media crumbling at the feet of social media. And as consumers have repeatedly indicated that they care more about the impact of the products they buy as well as the behavior of the companies behind them, it seems an inevitability that CR efforts can and should be pushed out through social media as well. Get going with your social media communications now, and don’t look back. That 7% is as low as that measurement will ever be.  

[1] For more information, read Forrester's blog here

[2] For more information, read the Mashable article here

[3] For more information, read the Social Media Examiner article here

[4] For more information, see the Times article here