Taking a social stance on social media

How new media bring risks and rewards for online CSR.


With the expectations of stakeholders on the rise, an ever-increasing number of corporate, non-governmental and transnational initiatives are dedicated to responsible business practices. This growing trend to engage in social business is paralleled by the ubiquity of new information and communication technologies such as social media. While the adoption of social media by various stakeholders has risen to new heights, for many corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments new media are still a learning endeavour on how to navigate in an ever- changing communication environment.

What often comes as a surprise to many companies is the amount and tone of public pressure (not necessarily ill-intentioned) coming through social media. The discussion about one’s ethical practices may become unfiltered and open to a potentially huge audience, as well as permanent. Also, the public’s agenda might often be different to one’s own, and CSR initiatives deemed very strategic internally can be completely ignored externally. Issues that have not have been on the radar might start trending overnight and force corporate positioning.

The impact these new dynamics have on the design and management of corporate social initiatives is thus hard to ignore. While the public negotiation of expectations about corporate responsibilities may in theory be more democratic, the affordances of social media also hold challenges and pitfalls. As many communication directors testify, the conversation about sustainability often tends to revolve around the same group of people, and using social media as an indicator for the most pressing ethical issues might take time away from work on the topics deemed more important to drive the company’s responsible business practices forward. However, social media also hold tremendous potential for communicators to position an organisation within CSR.

When opening up the deliberation of responsible business practices on social media, companies have to consider a number of key issues, to keep their engagement strategic while being sensitive to public sentiment.

The unbearable visibility of public negotiation

A major change and challenge for corporations is the visibility of public debate on topics related to (perceived) irresponsible business practices. We are living in an age of increasing online activism, where the amount and tonality of accusations and attacks by social media users worry many communication professionals since there is no control over which one of the constantly-ongoing conversations might evolve into an online firestorm.

Justified criticism sometimes turns into oversimplified buzzwords that spread easily throughout communities. Online social networks make even well intentioned criticism faster, less intermediated and more amplified through viral processes. Social media are not always conducive to highly-nuanced formation of opinion, and small events that might not actually be representative of an organisation but are perceived as such and can provoke negative public attention.

"Justified criticism sometimes turns into oversimplified buzzwords that spread easily throughout communities."

Surprisingly, our research shows that the trigger for criticism often lies in a communicative event initiated by corporations themselves. When corporations expose themselves in social media, for example through promoting CSR efforts with a Twitter hashtag, pressure groups tend to publicly question these efforts, leverage the existing attention of a campaign and turn it into a negative discussion.

Because social media enable what we call ‘hypertextuality’ (the reuse and recontextualising of communicative resources and corporate texts), notions of control over social media campaigns have to be reconsidered. Therefore, before the launch of an online CSR campaign, the potential disagreements and debates should always be anticipated.

In these cases, the constant monitoring of ongoing critiques, the evaluation of legitimate claims and intervention through balanced dialogues could detect pitfalls and prevent an escalation from minor criticism into a major crisis. The issue with online mass protest is that it is more frequently based on perception rather than reality. Hiding is thus usually the wrong answer. The preferable way is to define a stance towards transparency and convince audiences that this transparency is sincere and not a marketing ploy.

Benefits - and limits - of transparency

Ethical misbehaviour and scepticism towards corporations, consumers, investors, authorities and other stakeholder groups, results in an increasing demand for higher levels of transparency from organisations. Opening up to this new ideology of transparency may prove a valuable tool in meeting the demands of stakeholders. For example, McDonalds Canada recently launched the YourQuestions campaign – where consumers could ask any question about food production, ingredients and social standards – and received detailed responses. In an interactive dialogue including the use of videos (one featuring the country manager of McDonalds Canada himself), McDonalds was able to address the prevalent scepticism and long-lasting rumours about its food production. Furthermore, the fast food company was praised by traditional news media for its transparency initiative and could position itself as a responsible organisation that takes the concerns of consumers seriously. 

"Corporations also need to be careful in respecting the private communicative sphere of employees and not to violate employee rights"

However, social media technologies could also reveal unintended and harmful corporate information. There have been several cases where leaked information has exposed organisations, often with facts taken out of context, creating harmful perceptions. To prevent reputational damage through employees’ use of social media, many corporations have developed guidelines on how employees communicate online. While these policies help empower employees as brand ambassadors and potentially create value through a more immediate form of outreach, corporations also need to be careful in respecting the private communicative sphere of employees and not to violate employee rights. This includes freedom of speech or collective action. Indeed, in a recent research project we found that two-thirds of more than 100 major corporations’ social media guidelines hinder rather than empower employee communication. Most of these guidelines could in themselves be perceived as an unethical business practice.

The constant renegotiation of the past

 On many occasions, the increased significance of transparency leads online publics to renegotiate and reinterpret organisational histories and social slights. From events that occurred several decades ago, such as the collaboration of organisations with the Nazi-regime, to the immediate past, such as the environmental pollution of the BP oil spill, online audiences collectively remember, debate and evaluate past corporate actions. While news media are typically focused on current events, social media have a strong culture of digital remembrance. For example, Wikipedia pages about organisational pasts involving CSR issues, such as the mentioned BP oil spill scandal, are highly debated and negotiated. While ethical guidelines and peer control in Wikipedia are meant to enable a factual and neutral representation of the past, in the less-curated corners of the internet, urban legends and rumours about past irresponsible behaviour are more likely to be based on unsubstantiated information.

For example, for several years, social media users expressed their strong discontent with wrongly attributed racist comments by fashion brand chief executive officer Tommy Hilfiger, even though Hilfiger had never made such comments. While rumours are traditionally left uncommented on or even undetected by corporate communication, social media provides a tool to identify and informally address urban legends and even turn them into conversations that underpin corporate values, as in the previously mentioned McDonalds campaign. Furthermore, the pro-active nurturing of remembering processes in social media may offer possibilities for leveraging brand heritage by providing information about the past.

Advocacy of social issues

Another rising trend in online CSR is corporate advocacy of social issues. Even though the idea that corporations also have a political role is not new, we have only recently seen corporations take a public stance on social and moral issues, such as freedom of speech, equal rights or climate change. Social brands increasingly position themselves as advocates and moral ambassadors; they start to fulfil quasi-public functions in supporting interest groups or political agendas. Social media and viral diffusion are often instrumental in their communication. However, by taking a stand, corporations often also pick sides, which might backfire in various ways. For example, when Red Bull launched a campaign which expressed its support for same sex marriage, the company not only earned applause but also provoked resistance from more conservative consumers. Shortly after the campaign launched, the brand’s Facebook page was flooded with hostile comments, where users expressed disagreement and their intention to boycott. Another pitfall here is the danger of being perceived as hypocritical. For instance, after the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo, Facebook’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg publicly positioned the social network as a defender of freedom of speech. However, Facebook’s recent collaboration with several countries to enable censorship evoked accusations of hypocrisy.

New horizons, multiple challenges

The possibilities for new media CSR initiatives are wide and manifold. However, when deciding to invest in new media-driven CSR initiatives, it is important to realise that these should be tied to long-term strategic goals. For example, when taking a social stance on social media it is important that advocacy for a social issue is in accordance with strategic brand positioning.

While this strategic alignment is a familiar yet delicate task for communicators, our research shows that another necessary consideration often poses an even bigger challenge for CSR and communication departments: making the switch from a logic of control to a logic of communities. Overall, corporations have to accept that they have less control over public negotiation, their own content and the CSR agenda. While a logic of control presumes that corporations are in control of setting the CSR agenda and related communication measures, the community logic emphasises mutual negotiation, whereby a corporation is only one node in a network of actors. Listening, engaging and respecting online communities, as well as the transparent assertion of corporate interest, will enable the successful positioning of responsible business practices within a participatory new media environment.

Michael Etter

Michael Etter is a research fellow at the Department of International Business Communication and the Center for CSR of the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His research interests include corporate communication, corporate social responsibility, new media, organisational reputation and identity.

Christian Fieseler

Christian Fieseler is associate professor for media and communications management at BI Norwegian Business School. In his research, Christian is interested in social responsibility, media management and innovation, organisational culture and digital communication.