In the third of a series on social media, Jonathan Ballantine reports on the ownership of social media and profiles some key campaigns


There’s been much debate about who owns social media in a business. Social media for sustainability can be handled by a number of departments (CSR, external communications, marketing and/or PR).

It is important to remember that no matter who “owns” social media, anyone in the company can be “on” social media. Therefore they are part of it, right?

During research for this feature, the general consensus is that social media should be managed in the same way that it was developed ie bottom up. Every employee can be trained and then encouraged to become involved in “mini-engagements” that collectively become the voice of an organisation.

The key question is how does a company ensure that those involved in these mini-engagements are singing from the same hymn sheet? Most CEOs/marketing and corporate affairs directors would react in horror to the possibility of inconsistent messages flying around, especially on sensitive subjects such as climate change, supply chain, diversity etc.

CSR/communication professionals need to educate their employees on how to talk about the sustainable impacts of a company/product, and understand that monitoring and response across these new channels is part of their new job. This coordinated bottom-up approach increases authenticity and demonstrates that sustainability is embedded across the organisation.

Placing the responsibility squarely on one function tends to create a moulded approach and dilutes the effectiveness, which can render the exercise meaningless.

Business first

Intel introduced its blog programme two years ago as a new business tool for its customers and employees to communicate directly and collaborate from keyboard to keyboard (although, actually, grassroots employee blogging started as early as 2003).

Going against the traditional communications protocol, where only a select few can speak out on behalf of an organisation, Intel wanted employees to get involved online. Within 12 weeks, more than 700 Intel employees had volunteered to tell their story, lend their experience and share their knowledge directly on places such as Twitter, Facebook et al. Intel’s on-domain social media offering now has more than 35 blogs and vibrant communities.

The basis of this strategy is to:

  • build communities;
  • engage others;
  • empower employees;
  • expand the conversation;
  • strengthen relationships through active listening;
  • be social media leaders; and
  • promote Intel and its brand.

In December 2008, Intel launched a global initiative and training programme (Digital IQ) that is open to all employees to become active participants in all forms of social media. It also posted its social media guidelines online. While there are plenty of caveats to ensure that employees respect Intel’s privacy policy and other rules, there’s no denying that this is an astounding piece of empowerment.

What’s incredible is that Intel isn’t just allowing workers to use social media for work purposes; it’s encouraging them to be themselves while doing so.

A summary of Intel’s online commitment:

“Emerging platforms for online collaboration are fundamentally changing the way we work, offering new ways to engage with customers, colleagues, and the world at large. It's a new model for interaction and we believe social computing can help you to build stronger, more successful business relationships. And it's a way for you to take part in global conversations related to the work we are doing at Intel and the things we care about.”

The company set out these guiding principles for employees:

  • stick to your area of expertise and provide unique, individual perspectives on what's going on at Intel and in the world;
  • post meaningful, respectful comments: in other words, no spam and no remarks that are off-topic or offensive;
  • always pause and think before posting. That said, reply to comments in a timely manner, when a response is appropriate;
  • respect proprietary information and content, and confidentiality; and
  • when disagreeing with others' opinions, keep it appropriate and polite.

Intel strives for a balanced online dialogue by moderating content by using three guiding principles. If the content is positive or negative but is in context, then the company will approve it, regardless of whether it's favourable or not. However, if the content is offensive, denigrating and out of context, then it will reject the content.

Intel’s policy on social media goes against usual corporate practice. At a time when many businesses are considering (or already are) banning the use of social media in the workplace, it is entrusting its employees to do what’s right and transparent.

Central focus

McDonald's is no stranger to public criticism – whether apparently contributing to obesity or to the destruction of Amazonian rainforests. However, it’s a good thing that McDonald's has a corporate responsibility blog to discuss such topics. During an interview with Bob Langert, founder of the blog, he said that the idea was conceived with the notion of “wanting to join the discussion” around hot topics and “being part of the dialogue”.

Unlike Intel, McDonald’s maintains its blog centrally, via the CR/communications departments that Langert oversees. Although an understandable approach in the beginning, it would be interesting for McDonald’s to reach out across the business.

It is obvious why the two companies have such a contrasting approach: Intel is viewed as an innovative high-tech business (that powers social media) with a culture for openness. McDonald’s, on the other hand, is open to public criticism and has had its fair share of enemies in the past: hence the need for a more guarded approach. From conversations with McDonald’s, it seems committed to social media and claims it has exceeded its goals.

It would be interesting for more businesses to join the ranks of McDonald’s, Intel or Sun. If the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is prepared to open itself up via social media, then why shouldn’t major corporations, banks or even government departments do the same? Recently, the MoD published guidelines that tell British troops how to use social networking websites such as Twitter or Facebook to keep the world informed of what they're up to.

In a previous article, Building Trust Through Corporate Stakeholder Engagement, I concluded that stakeholders will continue to demand greater degrees of transparency, governance and accountability from both the private and public sector. The private sector has an opportunity to reposition itself and lead by example. It is imperative for today’s businesses to be proactive and self-effacing, and deal with emerging media.

In the UK, McDonald’s is engaging debate with its customers and has set up an interactive website called Make Your Own Mind Up, which enables people to find out what they would like to know about McDonald’s food, business, people, working practices etc.

The site aims to open up McDonald's to its customers, showing exactly where the food comes from and how it was processed. Users are invited to ask questions about the food and the business, and a team of experts answers them, with input from McDonald's.

The site has been a huge success, attracting more than half a million visitors and 15,000 questions, and goes down as a significant experiment in how big brands can communicate on the web – and one that has turned out well for both the company and its customers.

Smell the coffee

Another company that has managed to gain some mileage from social media is the Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in the US. Although its involvement with social media and CSR has been limited, so far primarily through, it has managed to have had some success.

“We used the platform to promote our recent Changing Climate Change Request for Proposals (RFP)”, says Michael Dupee, vice-president of corporate responsibility.

It invited proposals from organisations that are working on climate change in one of four key areas: threats to coffee-growing communities, transportation-related emissions, building political will, and empowering individual action. Potential applicants were asked to post their ideas on JustMeans and invite their network/constituencies to click on to the contest page to vote or comment. “We sifted through the initial submissions to identify 15 finalists, then picked one winner in each of the four categories: winners each received a five-year grant worth $200,000 ($40,000 per year).”

At the initiation of the RFP on JustMeans, Green Mountain Coffee had approximately 30 people in its JustMeans network and a new Twitter account with no followers. Just one month later it had more than 30,000 people in its JustMeans network and more than 6,000 followers on Twitter. “Through the initiative, we received more than 1 million page hits, with 100,000 of them unique, and more than 100 grant applications from all over the world. Hugely successful initiative”, concludes Dupee.

Dupee is keen to identify the company’s next challenge as how it can continue to engage productively with people who have identified themselves as interested in its CSR work. The reality for any business with an online presence is that it needs to have dedicated resources listening and responding in real-time where consumers are talking about their business. Senior leaders that fail to see the value in having a strategy for dealing with social media are missing a large opportunity to connect with and build trust with stakeholder groups, including employees and consumers. Social media is far from a fad, and the sooner businesses engage in the medium, the faster they will learn and the better prepared they will be. Doing nothing may have serious consequences.

This is part three of a four part series. For parts one, go here, and for part two, here. Sign up to get e-updates for the other three articles in the series at:

Jonathan Ballantine is a European-based communications specialist. He advises leading businesses, NGOs and professional service firms on CR and sustainability issues.

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