Friday, November 4, 2011

Why is communication such a big deal for CSR?

Corporate social responsibility often provokes a lot of debate. But one thing that most people seem to be agreed on is the necessity of good communications. Of course, what makes for "good" communications is not so clear cut. Should companies engage in dialogue and debate with their stakeholders? How do you communicate "authentically" with consumers around social issues? And what do employees expects or want in terms of internal communication around CSR? These are some of the questions occupying minds rights now, so it has been interesting to spend the last couple of weeks exploring some of the challenges around the intersection of CSR and communication, both from a research and practice perspective. Not that this has necessarily brought me any closer to the right answers, but I think it has helped a lot in clarifying what the right questions might be.

Last week I keynoted the 1st International CSR Communication conference in Amsterdam, NL, a primarily research conference that also featured a lot of practitioner participants. This was preceded by a doctoral workshop on CSR and communication research where budding PhD students sought to test out their ideas, theories, and methods with experienced researchers like myself and Mette Morsing from Copenhagen Business School. Then, this week I keynoted another pretty unique conference - a mixed practitioner/research conference in Copenhagen on CSR and social media titled "Social media for social purposes".

Suddenly it seems that the communications challenges in CSR are getting a lot of attention. Certainly they are beginning to attract a lot of research activity, whether from management researchers, communications scientists, or media analysts. There is some really interesting stuff happening out there, much of it making use of the new online data that is all around us. I've been impressed by some of the datasets that are being put together using Tweets, blogs, YouTube videos, media articles, and a variety of online texts and reports. The possibilities of analyzing "big data" around online CSR communication are growing all the time. But also, it is clear that we need more than just huge amounts of data - we also need to be asking the right questions.

Consider this. McDonald's, which has been a pioneer in blogging about its CSR practices through its Values in Practice blog, has recorded the following stats from January - November 2011:

Number of posts: 16.
Average number of comments per post: 0.5
Average number of tweets per post: 1.2
Average number of Facebook likes per post: 3.1
Average number of shares per post: 3.8

Now consider this. McDonald's has more than 11m people who have "liked" the company's main Facebook page. That's a lot of people who don't seem to be much interested in what is happening over at their CSR blog. Clearly something is up. CSR experts are saying that companies need to engage in dialogue with their stakeholders. So are McDonald's stakeholders actually not interested in dialogue? Is the way the company is communicating not relevant for them? Is the company blocking interacting on some way or is one way communication actually effective here?

As I say, we don't really have the answers to these sorts of questions yet, but the field is moving fast and through network, discourse, and sentiment analysis, for example, researchers are getting a better understanding of how and why people respond to CSR communications in particular ways.... and what this all means for the society we live in today. There is a long way to go, but it looks like its going to be an exciting and informative journey.


Photo by joshfassbind. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

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