The Four E’s of Social Media & Sustainability

The TakeAway: Sustainability Leaders Need to Use Social Media to Exchange, Educate, Engage, and Enhance.

Social media has exploded within the past few years to become a fixture in our culture.  For example, Facebook’s network has mushroomed to 500 million users and Twitter attracts 190 million visitors a month, who generate 65 million Tweets (or 140-character updates) a day.  And the UN estimates cell phone users will number 5 billion globally this year, with one billion people using smartphones to access Web applications such as Facebook and Twitter.

Yet most firms and NGOs have only dipped their toes into social media.  This, despite the potential social media offers to access information, build knowledge, connect with stakeholders, and improve performance.  A recent McKinsey report on “Ten Tech-Enabled Business Trends to Watch” cites the need for organizations to “think strategically about how to adapt management and organizational structures to meet these new demands.”

We’ve identified four categories for using social media to achieve sustainability:  Exchange, Educate, Engage, and Enhance.

Exchange |  Social media allows you to point your megaphone wherever you want, in a “one-to-many” broadcast.  But listening – a forgotten art in a world of data dumping – also plays a key role in creating two-way exchange.  Social media enable you not only to monitor breaking news, but also discuss it, therefore helping to form influential opinions.  These exchanges can help correct or clarify misconceptions, as well as call people to action.  Twitter hashtags (#) allow you to track – and add to – exchanges by topic; some of our favorites include #sustainability; #csr for corporate social responsibility; #ESG for environmental, social, and governance matters; #corpgov for corporate governance; and #finreg for financial regulation reform.

Educate |  Social media carries huge potential to educate, where users can both teach and learn.  The proliferation of webinars exemplifies this, as does the rise of “user-generated” content, such as Wikis, question-answer databases, and discussion boards.  These tools encourage two-way conversations that “stimulate continuing participation and commitment,” as the McKinsey authors write.  And Creative Commons makes it easier to “increase the amount of creativity (cultural, educational, and scientific content) in ‘the commons’” without losing copyright permission.

Engage |  Few firms currently use social media to engage stakeholders, but that is quickly changing.  Bill Baue and I cite examples where firms and stakeholders increasingly engage online in The Accountability Web: Weaving Corporate Accountability and Interactive Technology, a research project of the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School.  We identify the following progression in engagement (followed by case examples):

Enhance |  Going forward, social media can help enhance performance, particularly on sustainability.  For example, the 2degrees network of 8,000 sustainability professionals participate online in facilitated problem-solving through virtual seminars, open innovation challenges, and “best practice” exchanges.  This represents a “community of inquiry and practice”, where members improve professional performance, develop new skills, and even create new knowledge to replace outdated assumptions.

Given the rapid pace of technology innovation, sustainability leaders can’t afford to watch from the sidelines.  When it comes to advancing sustainable prosperity, we all act as learners and innovators.  We can practice the 4 Es of social media to help make the transition to a more just and sustainable world.

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13 Responses to The Four E’s of Social Media & Sustainability

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  2. elaine cohen says:

    Hi, great post, great advice, great examples. I would add another E. Enjoy!! I think you have to have fun on social media. You have to enjoy the interaction, enjoy sharing, enjoy the virtual meeting with so many amazing minds. It has to be something that works like work but feels like fun! There is a certain thrill of acomplishment every time you post a new piece on the blog or make a comment on someone else’s or tweet or retweet or shoot a set of pics off to your Facebook page. The minute you feel yourself being pressured by social media, it’s time to back off and think why you are really here.

  3. Marcy Murninghan says:

    Thanks so much, Elaine, for your enthusiastic support.

    We agree: there should be another “E”, for “Enjoy”. A hallmark of social media is a sense of fun, as you say, which enables respect, humility, and well-being. This also enables us to communicate with Ease and Economy, all the while Enjoying the Excellent Exchanges and Educating Everyone (unless we’re a bore) in the process of Enhancing our Environment…

    How’s that for a mouthful???

    Thanks again!


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  5. Really great post, Marcy! Thank you! Maybe even consider one more “E”! How about empower? Perhaps it’s overkill, but I do believe a CSR manager has the opportunity to inspire and empower company employees to get involved in community volunteer and philanthropic efforts.

    Keep up the great work!


  6. David Connor says:

    Superb post Marcy.

    How about another ‘E’ for expectation – as in managing expectation.

    Building effective multi-channel dialogue takes time. Like any approach to building relationships you need to demonstrate commitment over time to win trust. Whilst there are some genuine quicker wins through using social media well, the best value is derived through sustained positive actions.

    Too many people think social media is THE answer. It’s not. It’s only part of the answer.

    Be honest + be engaging + sticking around = reward

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  8. An incredibly focused and prescient piece. I would urge everyone interested in how to move to a “sense and respond” orientation to download and read your complete report. Bravo, and hope to read more!

  9. Marcy Murninghan says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful responses and suggestions. This is exactly what we’re hoping to do: encourage you to share your own ideas and experience, so we all can benefit.

    Susan, “empower” is a terrific “add”–indeed, it’s the basis for all the “E”s, and central to our philosophy at MurnPost. Thanks for highlighting that.

    David, thanks for reminding us of the importance of “expectation”, and the need for caution and patience. In this turbo-charged environment, we’re always looking for the quick fix. Social media and interactive technology are in service to building relationships, knowledge, and competence–not goals in and of themselves. Doing that takes time, and a willingness to stumble and get back up again.

    Russ, we are grateful for your words, and your similar engagement with how networks can thrive, and be healthy.

    Dominic, thanks for including us in your roundup. We continue to learn from your work.

    Elaine, your playful intelligence and integrity shine through. Thanks so much for including us in your musings.

    Meanwhile, an open invitation to all: Please help us think through how best to address the barriers that prevent effective integration of interactive tech / social media in your sustainability work. Please think of words, like the “Es”, that capture that struggle, drawn from your own experience. We’re listening–and learning!

    With good wishes,


    • Ev says:

      This is one of the most valuable articles I’ve read on the subject.
      I’d insert another letter under the E’s for Exchange and Engage — I’m going with Q, which unmistakably stands for Questions.
      You have to ask the right questions — ask them at the right time and of the right people, but whichever way you look at it:
      A provocative question is more powerful than a provocative message.
      And I completely agree with Elaine; if you make it Enjoyable for everyone, you are much more likely to build a following.

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