Google has looked to some unlikely sources to help the organisation's social conscience and other brands could follow in the search company's footsteps, writes Suzy Bashford.
There are few brands with the guts to host a summit bringing together 80 former extremists, including IRA terrorists, jihadists and neo-Nazi skinheads. Google, however, paid for such a group to fly from all corners of the earth to Ireland in June. It was an appropriate location, given that Google's European headquarters is based there, and that the island's history has been affected by terrorism; but why would a search company organise such an event?
Google rejects any suggestion that the summit was a PR stunt or aligned with a formal CSR strategy. According to Google's senior manager for communications, William Echikson, who helped organise the event, the motivation was to debate how to deal with extremism and to 'increase understanding of a tough topic'.
'There was no strong link between this summit and the business. We don't view this as CSR. We don't even have a CSR director at Google,' he says 'We encourage all our people to take on tough subjects so we can advance our understanding in any way that would be considered important. We want to rethink how 'think tanks' work and whether they have some way of activating change.'
This particular initiative came out of Google Ideas, an experimental hub which launched in October. It was the pet-project of Google Ideas director, Jared Cohen, who formerly worked for Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, her predecessor.
While Google denies the summit had any underlying business objective, it undoubtedly fitted neatly with its professed belief in freedom of expression.
Echikson concedes the link. 'The summit shows we're not afraid to take on uncomfortable issues. We have a strong moral stance on freedom of expression over censorship, which is something that gets us in trouble, but it's something we believe in. The idea that we can pre-screen content is not practical or right. There are 48 hours of material going up every minute on YouTube. It's not right that we should be in a position of censorship,' he says.
Google's summit also hits on a trend that some are calling 'social CSR', that of harnessing social media to bring people together for the greater good. Reporters and CSR experts have applauded Google for its bravery and innovation.
'This is a very smart move by Google,' says Simon Hodgson, senior partner at CSR consultancy Acona, which works with the Media CSR Forum. 'A lot of people naively think CSR is about conveying the moral conscience of a corporation, but it is not. It is about having a sophisticated understanding of the collective moral view of society; what 'we' (society) think is acceptable or not. Judging public opinion is critical for planning and businesses need to know what will be 'acceptable' tomorrow and plan for it in the same way as they would plan for currency fluctuations and political change.'
The advent of social media, particularly its ability to mobilise people to express their view quickly, has meant that public opinion can change overnight. The News of the World phone-hacking scandal is testament to that (see box, below left).
So, how on earth do brands predict public opinion in advance, to make provisions for it?
According to CSR experts like Hodgson, the answer is to talk to people on the fringes of society, such as extremists. Brian Millar, strategy director for strategic consultancy Sense Worldwide, says his company regularly brings them together for clients such as Nike and Vodafone.
'When you listen to your core consumers, you get the same old stories,' explains Millar. 'When you engage extremists in the right way, you can start to understand the future. We've recruited pagan witches, extreme Death Valley ultra-marathon …