Importance of getting it right

Updated: 2012-10-15 15:20

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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Social media platforms become major channel for companies to promote CSR activities and shape images

Many of us are guilty of clicking "like" on a Facebook status touting the support of a charitable cause and giving ourselves a mental pat on the back.

Whether or not the two seconds it took to click the button had a genuine impact on disadvantaged children in Africa or women suffering from breast cancer is another question. Unfortunately the answer is probably not.

But one way social media are having an impact on those in need of social support in China is through an increased scrutiny by Web users with a watchful eye.

This is especially true of corporate social responsibility, where people skeptical of a corporation's attempts to do good play an online detective role in finding whether their intentions are true.

"If you look at any company, they're really coming under the microscope of the general public and consumers," says Jean-Michel Dumont, chairman of the public relations firm Ruder Finn Asia.

With China boasting more than 530 million Internet users, the number of people watching and commenting on a company's every move is enough to make businesses want to listen.

"Everybody now has a voice, and that voice is creating a dialogue with the brands or against the brands - it's becoming critical for corporations to listen to those voices," Dumont says.

He gives protests outside Dolce & Gabbana's Hong Kong store this year as an instance where a backlash toward company policies helped gain momentum online.

The incident began when a security guard stopped a local resident from taking pictures outside Dolce & Gabbana's storefront in January. Dolce & Gabbana later issued a statement supporting the barring of photography in front of its store.

What could have been an easily overlookable instance gained more than 10,000 followers online through websites like Sina Weibo and soon thousands of people stood outside the storefront in anger.

"Luxury companies became the target," Dumont says. "It became an issue where a brand became the center of a storm that was a much bigger issue of resentment."

Had the company tapped into the mindset of online users, the incident could have been avoided, he says.

But it is also not just about keeping a watchful eye on whether a company is behaving or not.

Online social platforms are also an open window for companies to find people who are enthusiastic about topics which their CSR programs deal with and connect with them.

"What we're having now with the power of social media is contacting people across the globe. They can go online, get information or just product information," Dumont says.

"That is something that CSR is all about - which is tapping into the passion, and tapping into the center of interest to change. It's a whole new area of engagement that's happening."

Though simply talking about a CSR program rarely results in dollars and cents, it does help spread the reputation-building image that a company is out there to do the right thing.

Still, many of the largest companies have not yet caught up to engaging in the online world of communication as a method.

"Whether or not a company's CSR is beneficial really depends on how the public sees its programs," says Brian Ho, director of CSR Asia in Beijing.

"If they are not able to communicate with the public, the program can lose its focus."

As social media have only been a major voice in the last five years, many companies are getting lost. The result is millions of dollars spent to build online social media programs and on resources examining how a company is being discussed on the Web.

"It's a different level of investment needed. You're talking about monitoring millions of conversations online," Dumont says.

Even if a company successfully establishes itself in the world of Web chatter, even the most innocent attempts at bringing awareness through online media can have disastrous results.

No one knows this more than the US fast food giant McDonald's, which had a rude awakening through the cynicism of twitter-users, after launching its online McDStories campaign earlier this year.

Designed as a way for twitter users to share "uplifiting" stories about their McDonald's experiences, the corporate office had to shut down the campaign within the first hour after people began reacting to the campaign with a list of complaints or derogatory statements, often including body functions.

Used correctly, social media offer big business a chance to come across as being more than just a faceless company and help spread a message of the good it is doing to millions worldwide.

But it is crucial for companies to hit the right tone and portray the right message, lest they become the targets of those they are trying to speak with.