Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

Pepsi Cola

Social media continues to impact businesses and nonprofits in unforeseen ways. Perhaps the greatest trend of the moment is the fusion of corporate and philanthropic interests, which in turn is producing growing pains and change. It’s likely that the requirements of online transparency will demand a new era of authenticity in corporate community investment efforts.

This trend results from demands for better corporate citizenship and community participation, transparency digressions, and frankly, very public cause marketing and corporate social responsibility programs that have exposed weaknesses in the social media realms.

It’s a problem that keeps coming up, and won’t go away. This will force organizations and companies to become much more mindful about how they invest in their communities.

This discussion is one that I’ve been having piecemeal with many people, in and outside of Zoetica, from cohorts Kami Huyse and Beth Kanter to change-minded folks like Alex Bornkessel, Allyson Kapin, Dan Morrison and Amy Sample Ward. I want to thank each of them for our ongoing dialogue, and directly or indirectly helping synthesize this post. My purpose in publishing this is soliciting feedback to evolve this authenticity theory. Please sound off.

The Current Authenticity Situation

DC Central Kitchen - Indique Heights Teaches

Indique Heights Owner and Chef K.N. Vinod Teaches at DC Central Kitchen

Many companies blur the lines now between cause marketing and corporate social responsibility, which in turn creates problems. One is not the other, but unfortunately, the current business environment will likely continue blurring the definitions rather than adhering to form. In that sense, this reminds me of the personal brand vs. reputation debate.

Ninety percent of companies cannot discern the difference between cause marketing and corporate social responsibility. Altruism often fails or is not thought out. In reality, most companies think, “Yeah, we’ll give some money to charity,” and let their executives figure out which ones. In the social media world, now they just outsource it to their communities (in both good and bad ways).

We must accept this level of understanding and approach CSR/cause marketing in a manner that raises the general level of ethics at play. In either case, social media continues exposing weaknesses in cause marketing, which will force such initiatives to become more CSR-oriented.

Moving forward, regardless of purpose, companies need to become much more authentic in their community investments. Authenticity means instead of simply throwing money at a cause or contest, they would directly address their missions, or the problems directly/indirectly created by their business. A third category — family — would be the causes that impact their employees, such as healthcare.

By being much more mindful in their cause initiatives, companies become better community citizens. And frankly, their online communities of interest will start demanding it.

Three Forms of Authenticity in Community Investment

Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

Mindful authenticity in corporate community investment manifests itself in three ways:

Mission: Every company tries to market something. In doing so they have a mission and a product or service that fulfills a need. As such, authenticity dictates that the company invest in a community in a manner that relates to their core competency and also their marketing initiatives.

This is much more important for cause marketing initiatives. For example, if a company’s mission is information technology oriented, then literacy and education are obvious investments. So is poverty, and ensuring that the digital divide gets conquered. But investing everything the company had in cancer research makes no sense as an IT company’s strategic investment. It would for a healthcare oriented company.

Problem: In life we all create wreckage, both directly and indirectly. Some do less, some do more. In the environmental sense, every person has a carbon footprint. Thus it’s safe to say every company impacts the community in some negative ways.

Authenticity here dictates acknowledgment of impact, and actions to address the damage. For example, Exxon Mobile may want to make a greater investment in green energy than a trifle $100 million investment. Or instead of allocating $20 million for Pepsi Refresh, Pepsi would take a few million dollars to support causes addressing obesity issues as well as investing in reusable container technologies.

Family: Right now I would classify 90 percent of corporate community investments in this category, and that’s a mistake. Many of the crowd-sourced contest initiatives go wayward in this sense, too… Why? Because most of the investments are not thought-out and represent haphazard donations. They don’t acknowledge the corporate mission or the problems the company creates.

That being said, we all have or are employees. Companies represent big families, and in that sense it’s right to take a portion of donatable funds, and invest in real human issues like autism research or homelessness.

The right formula of mission, problem and family needs to be weighed intelligently by each organization. But that’s where the growth comes. Because blindly investing in family causes, or solely focusing on mission based initiatives causes an organization to stray from its community. Given today’s social media environment, at some point a cry will come for more balanced investment approaches.

What do you think about authenticity in corporate social responsibility?

Messaging Still Fails

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One of the greatest triumphs of the social web remains the open citizen revolt against marketing messages (bored image by Samael Trip). Note how well the Apple iPad name flew yesterday online (ahem, let’s not go there). Nonprofits experience the same disinterest from their stakeholders as companies due.

In fact, a recent report by marketer Nancy Schwartz (hat tip to Beth Kanter for forwarding me these stats), 84 percent of 915 nonprofit leaders who completed the survey last month said their messages connect with their target audiences only somewhat or not at all. Nancy’s post includes comments from survey participants explaining why their messages fail to connect:

  • “Our messages need to be more succinct to communicate how effective we really are.”
  • “We don’t move our base to action.”
  • “We have individual elements that are ok solo, but no unified path.”
  • “Our messages aren’t hard-hitting or targeted enough. So they fall flat.”
  • “We need to shape messages that are simple enough for staff to remember and feel comfortable in repeating it to others.”
  • “Too much jargon. I can’t even understand what we’re saying.”

Maybe, but… Let’s be frank as I’ve written about this over and over again in the past on the Buzz Bin: The Cluetrain Manifesto was right! “There’s no market for messages.”

It doesn’t matter if you have a compelling cause or a public interest, or if your company contributes to society. If you drill people with messages, they will absolutely turn their back on you.

And you know what? You deserve it. It’s like entering a party and spamming people with solicitations, stale lines, and hucksterisms. Thanks for talking about yourself and what you want from me all night. Cause or not.

The 20th century approach of communications is over, regardless of medium. Mass communicating at people no longer works. Even Super Bowl ads are starting to fail now, thus Pepsi’s $20 million (troubled) social refresh program.

Whether its social or not, cause and corporate communicators alike need to stop and retool their strategic approach towards messaging. What we learned in business or communications school has changed. The old dynamics of media, specifically the concept that there are limited channels of media that people get information from, no longer applies.

Look at messages as conversation starters (see this post I wrote on the starter message premise). You won’t control the dialogue, but the fact of the matter is you already lost control and some argue, you never had it. Instead let’s have real interesting conversations that matter to us (organization and person), and society, in general.

Full of Life, Zoetica Launches

Sunset on the Potomac

And so Zoetica begins. Together with top-ranked nonprofit blogger Beth Kanter and PR maven Kami Huyse, I am proud to launch Zoetica. Zoetica, a social enterprise, provides superior communication consulting, training, and strategy to help mindful organizations affect social change. As part of our mission, the consultancy will allocate 10 percent of our annual profits to organizations selected by Zoetica’s three founders.

What a crazy, yet fitting name! A mouthful of four syllables, yet only seven characters starting with a unique Z, a state of almost Internet nirvana. We got it from the biological term zoetic, which means pertaining to life. And that’s fitting as the company aspires to achieve social impact and make our lives better through communications.

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I’ve been through my fair share of communications start-ups, so I’d like to tell you some of the things that are different about our team going out the door.

1) The social mission is important to us. Beth’s entire career is nonprofit focused, and Kami and I have reached a point in our careers where we want to have real, meaningful impact. Whether it’s a nonprofit or a company with a strong social responsibility or environmental program, given our collective skill set this seems like the best way to affect social change.

2) While not an agency, the consultancy is communications focused. In the words of Edward Moore, “Shoemaker, stick to thy last.” And so, we stick to our core competency.

3) We each have strengths and weaknesses, which combined as an entity provide a balanced team. While we’re all strategists who have been in the marketplace on our own, there are certain natural roles: Beth’s the best blogger, and should be the frontperson. Kami is the best manager, and should run teams and projects. I’m the best marketer of the group, and will be on the frontline with clients. The roles are essential: As someone who ran a company solo, the big danger for an entrepreneur is trying to do everything her/himself. No one is the master of all.

4) All three of us have worked together. In an era where superstar blogger teams come together and break apart at the first twinge of ego-stress, this cannot be underestimated. I’ve worked with Kami for three years and Beth for two. Together, we’ve been working on Zoetica for five months. Further, we’ve all been through hard times on our own. It’s easier to trust known elements when push comes to shove.

5) The corporate structure allows for consensus and movement. While we each have our accepted roles, we also are equal partners. Our structure enables us to move through internal challenges using a majority rule, yet at the same time honors the voice of the minority. Private companies are just that, but this factor makes our collective future direction easier.

6) The national footprint adds strength! One city alone is a regional entity, but with Houston, San Francisco and Washington covered, we’re truly a national entity.

7) I mentioned strengths and weaknesses as they relate to a team versus a sole proprietor. There’s another aspect to this. It’s lonely running a company by yourself. Frankly, the Livingston Communications experience made me realize that I need peers in my work life. What better people than Beth and Kami? Two great people that I enjoy working with, that have similar values, and who are masters in their own right.

So in the words of John Lennon, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” It’s time for Zoetica.

You can check out both Beth and Kami’s take on the new company, You can also check out the official press release.

Details on the NonProfit 2.0 Conference

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Updated November 9, 2009

It’s with great pleasure that I am joining Allyson Kapin and Shireen Mitchell in organizing the first ever NonProfit 2.0 Unconference.  The Friday, February 12 event will be held somewhere in Washington, DC. What better way to kick off Valentine’s Day Weekend then with some love for our society and the people trying to improve it.

The event has already attracted some high caliber talent. Twestival Founder Amanda Rose has agreed to be one of the two keynotes. Damien Basile and Jocelyn Harmon have already committed to attending and pitching unsessions.

The Nonprofit 2.0 Unconference (on Twitter at nonprofit20) will be DC’s only unconference dedicated to the social cause space. Why? Because this sector is special and unique. Using social media to create networked communities and movements is much different than selling products or services.

From volunteers and political action to cultivating donors and partners, social media for causes represents a mission. Often our communications impact society, benefiting Americans and citizens across the globe. Changing society for the better is a special, unique heart-felt activity. Join others like you for this very special unconference committed to doing social good.

The format will meld the best of the BlogPotomac speaker and true Camp Unconference formats. Specifically, NonProfit 2.0 delivers the best of both worlds, offering great keynote sessions, but in an unconference way with no PowerPoint, 15 minute leads, and open questions and dialogue for fantastic conversations. Then from midmorning forward, NonProfit 2.0 shifts into a full-on Unconference.

We are definitely looking for sponsors, too. Sponsorships range from $100 for individuals to $1000 for Rose sponsors. Details are here.

Register today and feel the love!

Three Nonprofit Guest Appearances

I’ve been on a whirlwind tour of the blogosphere, providing guest posts to several friends and organizations. Here’s a brief summary: loveclimatedooley Last week on Live Earth’s blog, find my recap of the G20 summit and it’s impact on the Climate Bill. This was part of the #lovetheclimate campaign effort. I also wrote a brief summary of our Flickr group, which features some fantastic photos:

[Photographers] created a beautiful permanent testimony to the awesome beauty of Mother Nature, reminding us of what we are seeking to protect. The group slideshow cannot help but leave you stunned by Mother Nature’s beauty.

By the way, maybe, just maybe Senators heard everyone who loved the climate over those two weeks. The Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act was introduced yesterday. Thank you to everyone who participated.

On Care2’s FrogLoop blog this Monday, I wrote a post on integrating social mediainto a nonprofit’s larger communications effort. This is particularly timely with the holiday giving season coming up. How do you turn an organic conversation into something more, perhaps a donation or an action?

You already got the recap of my moderated session at SocChangeCamp. On the NextGenWeb, read summaries of the first three sessions I attended; moving people from concern to action, social network pushback, and megacommunities. The below image was the humorously altered social media adoption curve from the second session.

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