We live in a turbo-charged world of instant communication continually bombarding us, but we have yet to grasp the social and psychological effects of the Ubiquitous Web, nor how best to foster such things as reputation, legitimacy, and trust. This 24/7 digital environment drives our desire for more, more, more – right now! (as Google showed yesterday with its launch of Google Instant). And not just on our computers, but also on our mobile devices. The problem is, most of our personal practices and collective policies and structures are stuck in an earlier time, in a world lacking such pervasive connectivity. Companies and professionals seeking to maintain a reputational edge and build stronger ties with stakeholders need to adapt to the new world of cyber-engagement, according to a recent survey by Lundquist, a corporate online communications firm based in Milan, Italy.
The transition from the “people formerly known as the audience”, as New York University’s Jay Rosen puts it, to active online participants poses major challenges to bureaucracies, especially corporations, caught between “old” communications hierarchies and “new” social networks that amplify everyone’s voices. That’s why we consider yesterday’s release of Lundquist’s 2010 Online Stakeholder Engagement Survey on how companies use their websites to communicate CSR so timely: While individuals rely heavily on the Internet to find and share Corporate Social Responsibility information, most companies still rely on passive forms of communication rather than apply technology’s tools to building and sustaining stakeholder relationships.
- Communication of CSR needs to move away from annual disclosure towards a real-time relationship. Stakeholders want a regular flow of information, in a variety of formats and media;
- Only 25% of respondents consider annual CSR reporting adequate, with 38% saying updates throughout the year would be “very useful”; and
- Social media are emerging as an important space for information, discussion, and dialogue, yet company officials are failing to grasp their importance.
Respondents (less than half were corporate, the rest non-corporate) consider themselves avid users of interactive media, and communicate about CSR via web-based chats, forums, social media, and blogs in rough proportion to letter-writing. Although email remains the most popular engagement channel, a large percentage claim companies fail to respond. A quarter of those surveyed prefer LinkedIn to Facebook and Twitter – perhaps because LinkedIn offers more opportunities for conversation threads and document sharing. One-third read CSR-related blogs at least once a week, and many still rely on CSR reports and websites for specific items, such as environmental, social and governance (ESG) data, ethics codes, supply chain management, diversity practices, whistle-blowing procedures, and risk management.
As for social media: Lundquist reports that most non-corporate respondents (54% of the total) “look to social media to hear companies commenting and interacting rather than using them simply as another means of distributing information. They want companies to use social media to answer stakeholder questions (54% of answers), share relevant third-party news / research / opinions, etc. (49%), and publish case studies (42%).”
These conclusions square with our findings in The Accountability Web, which Murninghan Post Editor Bill Baue and I wrote for Harvard Kennedy School’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative earlier this year. We found both companies and stakeholders are still in the early stages of online engagement. And last month, we posited the “4Es” of social media and sustainability – exchange, educate, engage, and enhance – and received a number of new ones from readers: Enjoy; Empower; Expectations (as in “managing expectations”).
There’s no question that CSR professionals and others are eager to use online tools to build relationships, reputation, and trust. The real question is, when will companies – and their boards – get serious about responding in kind?