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In the last decade, ‘Web 2.0’ technological developments have significantly increased the speed, accessibility, and transparency of communication between organizations and stakeholders. The progressively interactive climate afforded by social media sites in particular is also changing the face of corporate social responsibility (CSR) communication. Once premised upon providing information to stakeholders, or responding to their queries, CSR communication is now evolving to actively involve stakeholders in the consumption and production of information on social, environmental, and ethical issues. Arguably still a core platform for communicating CSR, websites are increasingly being complemented with a range of interactive social media tools including weblogs (e.g. food retailer Delhaize’s ‘Feed Tomorrow’ blog), microblogs (e.g. Campbell Soup’s CSR Twitter feed), content communities (e.g. Samsung’s ‘Responsibility in Motion’ YouTube channel), and social networking sites (e.g. software company SAP’s CSR Facebook page). Interaction on these platforms boils down to textual exchanges, image/video sharing and voting, with some companies even adopting ‘gamification’ techniques to incentivize sustainable behaviour, such as Recyclebank’s link up with Foursquare to reward everyday green actions. These approaches expand the reach of CSR communications, build stakeholder engagement, and ultimately foster stronger, more personalised relationships. Research has also suggested that communicating CSR through social media can build reputational benefits, competitive advantage, and innovation opportunities. At a broader level, CSR communications in social media environments may also generate positive social impact. Take Global Handwashing Day, supported by Unilever and Procter & Gamble. The campaign takes advantage of Facebook’s 1.3 billion monthly active users to raise awareness of the importance of handwashing in preventing infections that take the lives of millions of children in developing countries each year. In 2014 alone, over 200 million people supported Global Handwashing Day, with Facebook being used to disseminate communication materials, share successes, and promote the campaign across over 100 countries. However, with these benefits come challenges. Given the plethora of social media channels (Wikipedia suggests that there are around 350) and pace of change in online contexts, organizations face a fragmented and dynamic communicative landscape. Where previously it was largely ‘controlled’ by the company, CSR communication now involves a range of different actors whose only prerequisite is an internet connection. These actors may support, shape, contest and co-construct framings of CSR to both organizational benefit and detriment. The latter can be illustrated vividly in Greenpeace UK’s online activism campaign against Nestlé and its approach to palm oil sourcing. Greenpeace’s campaign video targeted Nestlé’s iconic Kit Kat bar with the label ‘Killer’ for its role in destroying the habitat of Orangutans. The video ended up garnering almost 1.5 million views, and even Nestlé’s attempt to force its removal from YouTube only served to gain mainstream media attention and a new audience when it was reposted on Vimeo (an alternative video-sharing platform). Eventually, as well as addressing its palm oil sourcing strategy, Nestlé also had to rebuild the damage done to its reputation. Critical voices may also appear in social media from within the organization in the shape of disgruntled employees. In 2013, the UK music retailer HMV saw its social media manager ‘live’ tweeting to the outside world sensitive information about staff redundancies, placing the media spotlight on a troubled organization. These examples show that through engaging in ‘transparent’ and decentralized online communication, companies face the risk of public scrutiny, scepticism, and criticism at breakneck speeds. As they continue to grapple with such crisis situations, social media sites remain littered with unanswered stakeholder questions, traces of deleted comments, ‘moderated’ spaces for discussion, and policies for ‘online rules of engagement’. This begs the question whether social media genuinely offers free, collaborative and innovative spaces for real organization–stakeholder engagement and dialogue. What is unquestionable, however, is the powerful role that social media plays in augmenting views of organizations, and most specifically CSR agendas. As monological (oneway) communications approaches give way to dialogical (two-way) strategies, what remains to be seen is the extent to which stakeholder communication around CSR will be shaped by social media in the years to come.


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