Thursday, June 10, 2010

Raising the Bar

What's the biggest takeaway from today's #Promise conference, the last of several social media gabfests to be held this week in Manhattan under the Internet Week banner? It's this: promises mean increasingly less if tied to CSR campaigns employing social media. The cause-wired want more from companies than active Facebook pages, "do-good" prize competitions and a series of product launches tied to cool charities, speakers said. They want less talk and more social problem-solving -- with results.

[Indeed, the public's growing impatience with corporate gabbing-for-good seemed even more pronounced this morning, amid the continuing gusher of bad news from BP and the Gulf. BP's "beyond petroleum" campaign used to be considered one of the CSR movement's more successful "green" branding exercises. But now? The oil spill has dashed the credibility of that campaign; the spill is making it tougher for all high-profile CSR campaigns to be taken very seriously at the moment, speakers agreed.]

To be sure, while nearly a dozen companies used the #promise venue to tout new-and-improved CSR campaigns -- including Pepsi's "Refresh Everything" project to support social entrepreneurship and Twitter's new HOPE140 outreach to nonprofits -- the social activists in attendance were proving to be a tough crowd to please. [Timberland's announcement that it was planting 5 million trees in China and Haiti over the next five years, for example, took some hits on the conference's Twitter back channel. Some argued the trees are needed closer to home while others criticized the company's choice of Yele Haiti as a nonprofit partner, given a recent story in The New York Times questioning Yele's recent financial reporting practices. The sniping continued throughout the day, at one point questioning why Pepsi was touting its Dream Machine recycling initiative without having recycling containers in greater evidence at the conference venue.]

Keynoter Douglas Rushkoff underscored the bad mood of the crowd at mid-day, when he told attendees [and PR types in the audience] that "corporate communications no longer matter. The only thing that actually matters is corporate activity. If it's doing something real, that will be communicated. You don't decide to be transparent. You are transparent."

Among other social media-in-business takeaways from the day:

* Small isn't big enough anymore. Twitter Social Innovation Manager Claire Williams; IBM's Adam Christensen, and Andrew Katz, who manages the Pepsi Refresh Project, agreed as a panel that corporate efforts to retain, develop and attract corporate talent are getting tougher, requiring ever-bigger efforts by companies to develop do-good initiatives that scale in both meaning and impact. IBM's Corporate Service Corps program, where top talent is sent into communities around the world for six-month stints to work on social problem-solving projects, is now "harder to get into than Harvard right now," said Christensen. "(This program) is a kind of Peace Corps for companies and a great way for us to develop our talent and promote leadership skills." Now, he says, IBM is expanding it to include top-level managers.

* CEO buy-in is critical but it's the bottom-up buy-in that counts the most. "As we've seen with so many movements," said Pepsi's Katz, "the power comes from the ground up. Top-down involvement helps, and if companies have enough people who feel really passionately about making a change and doing business differently -- it can work. But it has got to be a little bit of both. Your CEO can give you a little bit of air cover, but unless you have that body of people who are really interested in this, it's not going to go anywhere -- inside or outside the company."

* Patience is a virtue when trying to change the way a company operates. According to Pepsi Refresh's Katz, "we wanted results immediately but the reality is that with what we're trying to do with the Refresh Project, it's a slower burn. Right now, we've done a really successful job against 10 percent of the population that is really deeply engaged in the project. But how do we make that mainstream and mass? We need to balance the need for immediate results with our objective of trying to change the way we're doing business."

* Stakeholder engagement is a resource in times of crisis. "Imagine if, when (the BP) disaster happened, BP had embraced the social networks," Ogilvy planning director Evan Slater said. "Instead of telling people, 'you can't come research this' ... imagine if they had gone out to the social networks and said, 'We're going to take $30 million and put out a reward for the group of individuals, the organization, the company that can find a solution to this problem.' I think the difference would have been phenomenal.'

Were you at the #Promise conference? We'd love you to share some of your take-aways. Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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