One thing we've been taking a look at recently is the development of CSR blogs written on behalf of companies, usually by a senior CSR executive or team. Although there do not appear to be a large number of them about (or at least if there are, no one's reading them and they're not appearing in our not-very-scientific Google searches), the phenomenon does seem to be gaining some momentum. Probably the most well known is the McDonald's blog 'Open for Discussion' which launched back in 2006, but CSR blogs have probably been most conspicuous amongst technology companies, with the likes of Intel, Sun Microsystems, and Lawson Software all launching CSR blogs of one kind of another. Although IT companies may not be the most prominent in the CSR and sustainability world, especially compared to fast food companies like McDonald's, there are clearly a whole range of responsibility issues that the industry is having to deal with. The interesting thing though is that they are choosing to use their technology focus to develop new ways of engaging with stakeholders through the medium of blogs.
OK, so in reality, the CSR blog is not a major breakthrough in the development of stakeholder communication, but it does represent an attempt to connect with people about responsibility issues in a potentially more personalized and interactive way than corporate reports, press releases and TV commercials. As Intel claims, it is an "intent to create greater transparency through open dialogue". Or, as McDonald's puts it: "Get personal perspectives on the issues, hear open assessments of the challenges we face, and engage in civil dialogue with the people behind the programs at the Golden Arches."
Clearly the rhetorical emphasis here is on dialogue, although according to our reading, there doesn't seem to be too much real conversation going on. Much of the content in these is mainly about presenting the corporate position on CSR issues, but simply using another channel of communication to do so. The titles of two recent McDonald's blogs on "What my little league days say to me about the root causes behind obesity" and "An alternative perspective on larger-scale agriculture" won't leave anyone guessing that the answers are in any way in doubt - i.e. fast food is not to blame and big agriculture is good for us.
Other CSR blogs take a different approach - the law firm Addleshaw Goddard, for example sets out "the mental meanderings of our CSR Manager" as more of a diary for its CSR programme than anything else. And the Lawson "Frankly CSR" blog is also somewhat idiosyncratic, but actually says relatively little about the firm's program. It focuses more on what the VP is currently finding interesting in the CSR world.
So there are clearly different ways if going about this. Our view is that the more corporations simply use CSR blogs as another vehicle to "get their message out", the less successful they will be. We already hear enough about what they are doing. So it is not exactly surprising that most CSR blogs, even for major corporations like McDonald's, seem to get relatively few comments. As Bob Langert, the company's VP for CSR said in response to a comment on the blog recently: "I wish we received more comments". But from our perspective, this isn't likely to happen so long as Langert persists in thinking that :
"Poor perceptions of McDonald's are frequently the result of a lack of information. People need easy access to information about our social and environmental policies and progress so that they can draw conclusions based on facts. "People are not looking for more information, and corporations suffering from "poor perceptions" should not be deluded in thinking that more information will solve their problems. Corporations need to engage with people in a different way - a way that treats their concerns seriously, that seeks to find common understandings and solutions, and that, yes, genuinely engages in dialogue. CSR blogs hold some potential for this, but at the moment, it is not being realized effectively. A change in mindset is required, not simply a change in communication channel.
But don't go thinking that we don't see anything positive in the current CSR blog phenomenon. There are some interesting discussions starting to happen out there. And perhaps most of all, what is pretty refreshing is to get a real person, an individual with a name and a face, writing about a company's CSR activities. With personalization, with a "moral face" even, there is greater potential for a meaningful ethical shift than with the bland bureaucratic messages of the faceless corporation. Plus, they tend to have a lot more fancy technological finery than our rudimentary efforts...