By Wayne Visser
In my previous blog on CSR and WikiLeaks, I suggested that social media may be a new platform for social activism. There are some, like Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, who are sceptical. In his article for The New Yorker, subtitled “Why the revolution will not be Tweeted”, he argues that “the drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.”
WikiLeaks is just one face of a broader movement of the explosion of social media as a new platform for communication, stakeholder engagement and transparency. We now have companies like GoodGuide providing sustainability ratings for over 60,000 products in the U.S., all accessible at the point of purchase simply by using a free iPhone barcode scanning application. We have JustMeans providing a social networking platform that allows self-declared stakeholders to “follow” a company through the site, providing not only access to their published CSR information, but also providing a conduit for feedback. Justmeans and CRD Analytics have also launched an innovative platform to provide companies with the capability to verify the accuracy and completeness of their ESG Data Set. And we have a new company, OpenEyeWorld, which provides a “crowdsourcing” tool for companies to consult with sustainability experts from around the world.
However, like any new tool, social media is still a double edged sword for companies trying to turn it their advantage in the sphere of corporate citizenship. An already classic case is that of Greenpeace’s anti-Kit-Kat chocolate campaign, which went viral in March 2010 across the social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. The 60 second Greenpeace video, which was at the heart of their campaign, shows a bored office worker biting into a Kit-Kat, and as he does so, it turns into the finger of an orang-utan and ‘crunch!’ the blood spills down his chin and over his clean white shirt. One estimate by Scott Douglas on Prezi calculated that within 4 days the Greenpeace report and shock-video may have reached half a million people through social media like Twitter and Facebook. This viral effect was seemingly boosted by Nestle’s attempt on its Facebook page to censor comments made by its critics (including activists who had changed their Facebook profile pictures to a defamed logo of Nestle, which said ‘Killer’ instead).
The fact that Nestle took swift action by dropping the accused Indonesian supplier and that their hands are effective tied by a lack of available sustainable palm oil did little to quell the angry reactions of online activists. Greenpeace later called off the campaign, which Nestle Executive Vice President for Operations, Jose Lopez, says was achieved “by putting on the table a very technical view of the issues we are talking about. We’ve demonstrated that we have a logic, a path and a process that drives continuous improvement into topics of high concern, which in this case is deforestation” (Courtice, 2010). Nestle’s successful resolution, however, does not take away the fact that social media is a tricky area for companies to master.
Courtice, P. (2010). Interview of Jose Lopez by Polly Courtice, Director of the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, 17 June 2010.
Note: This blog is partly based on research and writing done for the forthcoming edition of the Journal of Corporate Citizenship.