Session Summary: Brave New World: The Impact of Social Media Networks on Sustainability Reporting

Friday, November 8, 2013, 11:00 am-12:00 pm

Social media tools offer new methods of interaction—and more transparency than ever before—around sustainability reporting. Yet companies still produce reports that are largely one-way conversations. In the future, companies may choose to curate discussions by uploading raw data, providing their perspective, and then inviting communities on social media to analyze and debate the data. What kind of reporting environment will this create, and how will this approach help shape corporate sustainability strategy? How can companies fill the gulf between a 140-page report and a 140-character tweet?

Speakers



Highlights

  • Social media is an unavoidable reality of today’s communication; the question is how you choose to engage with it, not whether you do.

  • Sustainability reporting and social media should be more fully integrated. Credible sustainability information should be integrated into existing social media conversations, and sustainability reports should be developed with social media engagement in mind.

  • Social media requires a different tone than that of sustainability reports, but sustainability stories can help your company find a more engaging and accessible voice in its social media communications.

Memorable Quotes

“We are in a disruptive era of sustainability reporting, driven by social media, among other things.” —Guy Morgan, BSR

“The most authentic voice on social media is the authentic voice of an actual human being.” —Solitaire Townsend, Futerra Sustainability Communications

“I think debating whether this is good or bad is totally beside the point. It’s here, it’s being used, this is the way we are communicating, and we just have to figure out how to make use of it.” —Aron Cramer, BSR

Overview

Morgan began the session with a provocative question: “Will social media kill the sustainability report?” Cramer responded that social media is indeed a threat to the traditional report format but, at the same time, can also increase the power of sustainability reports by enabling dynamic, constantly evolving dialogue on companies’ sustainability activities. Townsend added that sustainability conversations are already taking place about your company on social media, but that the transparency and accountability that come from reporting are not necessary linked to this conversation. She emphasized the need for CSR professionals to link report information to social media conversations, though this will require a mindset change both within the marketing and the reporting teams.

Townsend then highlighted three models for how companies approach social media in reporting: pigeons, who have limited social media engagement; peacocks, who have experimented with different media formats; and phoenixes, who fully integrate social media and reporting (for more on these models, read Townsend’s post on BSR’s blog). Both speakers highlighted the important distinction between the important process of data collection and aggregation and the communication of this information using a variety of formats, depending on the audience.

An audience member noted that the different tone of voice used in social media and in sustainability reports can be a challenge. Townsend stressed that social media needs to have a human voice, not a company voice, but that this takes time to learn. She also highlighted the opportunity to use sustainability stories to bring out this more human, accessible voice. Cramer indicated the importance of understanding the purpose of your company’s communication, and choosing a voice that supports that purpose.

Speaking from an investor’s perspective, another audience member highlighted the importance of the sustainability report to measure company targets and performance, but also cited a need for non-traditional reporting to show how companies use the report information to engage with investors, employees, and other stakeholders.

Townsend then added a new thread to the conversation, reinforcing the importance of social media as a tool for listening and co-creation. She expressed a hope that companies will innovate and make their report data available for stakeholders to analyze and assess on their own, thereby drawing together the worlds of sustainability reporting and social media.

Next, an audience member offered the experience of using social media to get feedback on his company’s sustainability performance, indicating that the comments received were not as helpful as hoped. He emphasized the need for realistic expectations about the utility of social media. In response, Cramer reiterated that social media is an unavoidable reality of today’s communication, so the key becomes how you choose to engage with it, not whether you do.

In response to a question about when companies should and shouldn’t engage in social media, Townsend argued that if your company is already being talked about on social media, then you should always choose to engage. Cramer added, however, that companies shouldn’t engage if they can’t commit to doing it well, with the right staff time and capabilities.

The conversation then turned to the ever-changing set of social media technologies. Townsend shared a framework for the different types of social media, focusing on the whether they are visual (like Pinterest) or text-based (like Twitter) and whether they are personal (like Facebook) or more public-facing. She also recommended that companies find “digital natives” passionate about both sustainability and new media to lead and participate in social media efforts.

Morgan wrapped up the conversation by asking each speaker for practical recommendations on integrating sustainability reporting and social media. For those new to social media, Townsend recommended starting by listening to the conversations already happening about the company. Cramer repeated the need for companies to do both social media and sustainability reports. He also recommended that companies be open to sharing the complexities they struggle with, as this increases public understanding and builds trust with stakeholders.



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