What are some best practices your business can put into place to successfully communicate CSR on the web? What’s the difference between communication and engagement, and what makes digital stakeholder engagement truly effective?

This insightful article, first published on LinkedIn Pulse and written by CSR Advisor Ilaria Gualtieri, explores these questions among others, bringing an expert point of view to the benefits that result when online stakeholder engagement meets CSR.

For a little more background on the author, Ilaria Gualtieri is an experienced CSR and Communication consultant based in Qatar.

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Nowadays, corporations are increasingly present on web. However, are their messages getting across to stakeholders? Evidence shows that online CSR communication has a long way to go to engage stakeholders effectively

Communication has drastically transformed from the epoch of Bernays, whose most cited motto, dated 1955, is that public relations is about the “engineering of consent”. This means that corporate communication acts a form of organisational propaganda aimed not only to inform, but also to actively persuade the public.

Globalisation and web 2.0 technologies have drastically changed the communication panorama, reducing the distance between communication sources and their audiences. The past decades experienced the shift from a communication model aimed at informing undefined audiences to a dynamic process made of interaction, involvement, and the creation of shared meaning.

This is revolutionary in the light of the CSR discourse and the stakeholders’ theory.

Nevertheless, today CSR communication seems driven by the same criteria of persuading audiences of corporations’ responsible conduct. When it comes to communicating CSR, corporations fall in the same old trap; failing to exploit the potential of communication to actively engage their stakeholders.

According to a 2013 Cone’s research, traditionalchannels prevail in CSR communication. Overall, controlled or one-way media (such as media releases, news bulletins, reports) remain the preferred method CSR communication is conveyed. In 2013 Grayling noted that, globally, organisations allocated only minimal percentage of their communication budget to CSR; while Reputation Institute reported that companies with an average annual CSR spend of 50 million dollars are not getting their message across to consumers.

It is the so-called cultural paradox of CSR communication (Morsing et al., 2008): while communication is enhanced and facilitated by new technologies and the public is more aware than ever before, increasingly requesting to be engaged, corporate CSR communication does not fulfill the mission of buying stakeholders’ attention. Thus, corporations are not strategically exploiting the potential of communication, especially online, to meet their information and engagement goals.

The question is: do companies just communicate online, or do they choose to engage? And again, within traditional corporate structures, is it possible to enact forms of engagement without jumping in the often unknown magma of social media?

Grunig’s (1992) excellence communication theory presents a two-way symmetrical model as the best method to ensure a mutually balanced dialogue between an organisation and its stakeholders. The model entails that communicator and public equally interact, having the same opportunity to influence one another. This is CSR communication chimera.

Honestly, a fully balanced communication is unlikely to be achieved by corporations; however, the online world offers great opportunities to increase engagement rates in a cost effective way.

In this sense, web 2.0 technologies strategic benefits for CSR communication is the proposition of interactivity and dialogue as opposed to the static information production (Antal et al, 2002) which corporations have safely mastered for decades, and online media are the “cheapest and chicest” way to achieve accountability and engagement goals.

Research (We are social, 2014) shows that a third of the world’s population, more than 2.5 billion people, are internet users. Therefore strategically and proactively exploiting the potential of the web to inform, involve, and engage internal and external stakeholders is no longer an option. There is communication without engagement, but there is no engagement without an effective communication strategy.

Notwithstanding its acknowledged potential, online CSR communication is still mainly conveyed though sustainability reports and websites.

Sustainability reports by definition are designed to inform stakeholders, providing proof of transparency and accountability, align to best practices while responding to ethical stances and regulatory requirements. Their popularity is steadily growing. For example, in 1992, from the 26 reports counted by CorporateRegister.com, the number had risen to a remarkable 5,593 by 2010. In 2013, Asia alone experienced a +22% increase in sustainability reporting, according to KPMG Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting 2013.

Even so, web 2.0 technologies are only occasionally exploited to feature sustainability reports online. The mainstream is to make the full document or single sections downloadable in PDF, while only a limited number of corporations offer navigation. Besides, although meeting accountability requirements, these carefully crafted documents do not represent a palatable tool for engaging a wide range of stakeholders. Sustainability reports mainly present a traditional persuasive standpoint, with no opportunity to debate content; as such they re-propose a one-way model of communication.

On the other hand, websites represent an unexploited potential. This predominantly controlled channel features other media usually employed in CSR communication, and may be capitalised to enact forms of interaction. Authors (Guimarães-Costa and Cunha, 2008) have recently described websites as a communication means with an interior design metaphor. As such, website is an atrium, a reception area to welcome guests, make them comfortable while showing the best hospitality, attracting to proceed further.

According to recent statistics, visits to corporate websites from mobile devices increased 400% in the past years (Investis, 2013. IQ RESEARCH Audience insight Q3 2013). This means that a website is a stable point of reference for stakeholders. However, design and features presented do not keep up with technology and stakeholder engagement trends. Briefly, the “like” button or the social media links are not enough to establish a real connection.

Again, social media channels are difficult to digest. Even when corporations embark in social media, profiles are often incomplete, updates timid, and engagement rates suffer. While industry sector and customer-base are important discriminating factors for their use, social media still embodies a corporations’ biggest fear: loss of control or – two-way balanced dialogue (!).

A solution merging accountability and engagement stands in the most diffuse and basic online tool: the corporate website. In its capacity as an ‘atrium’, a website allows safely displaying CSR commitment using traditional one-way channels, whilst showing corporations goodwill towards its stakeholders with some simple expedients.

Looking at leading corporations’ best practices, the following elements for successfully communicating CSR on website emerge:

  • A CSR page is clearly available from the main menu
  • A sustainability and/or CSR report is available for download and navigation
  • The CSR page presents a strategic framework for the approach to CSR, including a mission and vision for corporate citizenship activities
  • The CSR page includes messages or quotes from corporate executives, as well as feedback from CSR partners or beneficiaries
  • Storytelling: the internal and external CSR initiatives are clearly presented with the addition of photos, videos, news, and external links to partnering organisations or beneficiaries
  • If any, the social media page is consistently updated
  • The CSR team contact is clearly displayed to allow mutual dialogue

While opening to a potentially critical interaction with stakeholders entails a profound perspective change, corporations need to realise that they no longer have full control on the content they propose. Frankly, corporations still prefer and will continue to favour content filtering, and the strategic selection of communication channels and methods. However, some dialogic tools can be enacted to allow forms of mutual dialogue and exchange, looking forward to a progressive evolution of online corporate communication in favour of increased openness, and a more balanced interaction.

A few corporations around the world can tick all of the above boxes. Rather than concentrating on PR stunts to catch public attention or relying on static and self-referential sermons about CSR, corporate websites can serve as useful gateway to surmount web 2.0 challenges, and demonstrate commitment factually, simply engaging in a click.

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This article especially resonated with us at Enablon. We live in a mobile world, where social media and digital technologies play a major role in the way we function, both as businesses and individuals. As the competition to attract stakeholder attention rises, old-fashioned static reports can no longer keep up, and as the pressure on Sustainability, EHS and Risk professionals to deliver business performance increases, efficient communication becomes essential.

Precisely with these challenges in mind, Enablon created the Publisher. Directly integrated in all Enablon solutions, the Publisher is an interactive, easy-to-use, ‘social and mobile’-friendly online stakeholder engagement solution, built to leverage the business benefits (such as increased efficiency, business transparency and team buy-in) of internal and external stakeholder engagement around both private and public EHS, Risk and Sustainability reports.

To learn more about the Publisher, visit us here!

This piece was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse (September 19, 2015).