Corporate social responsibility programs need to be well run and strategic in scope in order to have an impact. However, to communicate the range and importance of CSR activities, companies must navigate a complex web of diverse stakeholder groups with different needs and motivations.
An IABC Research Foundation study currently under way aims to identify best practices in CSR communication. The first phase of the project explores how companies communicate CSR programs via corporate CSR websites and other online media, and how they reach out to multiple stakeholders in a way that is simple, credible and interactive. (Additional results will be published in 2013.)
New media, including blogs and social networking sites, are recognized as important channels for stakeholder consultation. However, social media and other online tools have not historically been used for increasing interaction and dialogue about CSR activities, according to "Perceptions of Corporations on Facebook: An Analysis of Facebook Social Norms" by Purdue University Professor Mihaela Vorvoreanu, Ph.D., and similar research. Rather, the blogosphere is more often used as a means to transmit corporate messages and identify the most influential stakeholders in a specific CSR area. Few companies have fully explored the use of social media for stakeholder consultation.
So we asked: Are there companies that are doing this well? And which companies best communicate online with stakeholders in terms of simplicity, credibility and interactivity?
To find out, we interviewed 37 people from different stakeholder groups with different communication needs in terms of these criteria. These groups included students; investors and analysts; customers and potential customers; professionals and scholars; employees; the media; and potential recipients of CSR efforts, grants or partnerships.
After conducting the interviews and identifying the communication needs of each group, we designed a code sheet to analyze the online communication of top companies. Our content analysis aimed to identify the companies that best communicate about CSR online with each group. We selected 72 companies from 15 countries through non-statistical purposive sampling, on the basis of their ranking on 33 diverse CSR-related indices, including the Lundquist CSR Online Awards, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the Social Media Sustainability Index and FTSE4Good, among others. All of the companies were listed as leaders on two separate reports and/or were mentioned by two different interviewees as a leader in CSR and/or CSR communication. We analyzed the CSR websites of each of the selected companies and examined all web pages dealing with CSR, plus any documents uploaded in PDF format. And we looked at any online social media accounts, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, if available.
In general, our analysis reveals that stakeholders do agree on some features for optimal online CSR communication. All stakeholder groups prefer to find CSR information within one click from the company home page; they prefer to consult videos or interactive maps for more in-depth information; and they appreciate concrete facts about the CSR effort's impact, budget and external audit as well as detailed information about activities.
A summary of common stakeholder opinions of what makes a company's CSR communication simple, credible and interactive is provided in Table 1.
However, our analysis also reveals large differences in the interest in and awareness of aspects of CSR among different stakeholder groups--that is, what is most attractive to an analyst will not be as important to a customer or an NGO.
For an analyst, according to one study participant, "the most important information would be the financial numbers in the annual report," whereas a customer prefers to "see details about the results of the projects and budgets [. …