Companies are increasingly dedicating their time and resources to promote their public relations initiatives. Corporate Communication Managers and executives have a wide array of media channels at their disposal. These may be used to communicate their corporate social responsibility CSR credentials. As a matter of fact, businesses are continuously being scrutinised by media, customers, monitoring groups, consumer forums and blogs (Du et al., 2010).
Very often, businesses disclose their CSR activities through official documents, such as annual corporate responsibility or sustainability reports, media releases, dedicated sections of their corporate websites; as well as in social media pages or groups. CSR communication is produced, translated, and integrated according to the companies’ contexts and their specific reality constructions (Schultz and Wehmeier, 2010).
Companies could use broadcast advertising, including TV and radio commercials. Businesses could also utilise print media (e.g. newspapers, magazines) to disseminate their message to their target audience. Newspaper articles reflect corporate ideas of social responsibilities and assumptions about public expectations, and react herewith to what they perceive as the public’s expectations (Schultz and Wehmeier, 2010). Alternatively, they may use outdoor advertisements such as billboards and signage on brick-and-mortar premises. These traditional media are based on a hierarchical one‐to‐many communication; with a clear distinction between producer and consumer of information. Notwithstanding, there are other communication channels that are not entirely controlled by the company. For this reason, businesses are encouraged to become more proficient in the use of digital media in addition to traditional media to increase their impact of their corporate communication.
Evidently, the internet has reshaped communication at different levels. It has enabled the emergence of a new participatory public sphere that is based on a many‐to‐many communication where everybody can dialogically and publicly interact and collaborate in the creation of content and the definition of the agenda (Colleoni, 2013; Jenkins, 2006). In a relatively short period of time, the internet has become an essential tool for organisational communication (Capriotti & Moreno, 2007a; Stuart & Jones, 2004).
Moreover, in today’s digital era, the engagement between the public and the organisation is one of the main characteristics of the internet (Colleoni, 2013). Many corporate websites already possess a high degree of interactivity; including their ability to disseminate information and to generate relationships between the different publics and the organisation (Capriotti & Moreno, 2007). In the first approach, the level of interactivity is low, and the use of the Internet is unidirectional; as its essential objective is to diffuse information and to try to improve the corporate image of the business. However, in the second approach, the degree of interactivity is high, and the Internet is used to facilitate bidirectional communication and to nurture relationships by allowing dialogue and interaction between the organisation and its stakeholders.
Interactive communication is becoming one of the most important information channels for corporations as it is changing social dynamics (Fieseler & Fleck, 2013; O`Reilly, 2005; 2006). Web-based co‐operation and data exchanges have empowered the communication between businesses and their stakeholders (Buhalis & Law, 2008; O´Riley, 2006, Fieseler et al., 2010). It enables them to engage with online users and to take advantage of positive publicity arising from word-of-mouth marketing and digital platforms. Corporations can maintain legitimacy better as they engage with stakeholders via social media; and take on the gate keeping function of traditional media (Fieseler et al. 2010). At the same time, there are protest actors; who have become more powerful online as they disrupt the corporations’ legitimacy by using social media (Castelló, Morsing & Schultz, 2013; Bennett 2003).
Societies are currently undergoing a fundamental transformation toward globally networked societies (Castelló, Morsing, & Schultz, 2013). Unsurprisingly, the public relations and corporate communications of business have benefited of social networking software (Etter, Morsing, and Castello, 2011; Pressley (2006). Of course, these technological advances also have consequences for CSR communication; as companies can reach out to stakeholders in a more interactive way. In a similar vein, the use of social networks have offered the businesses new forms of interactivity and enable them to address the CSR information toward a variety of stakeholders (Isenmann, 2006). A powerful stakeholder group, the consumers serve as an informal yet highly credible CSR communication channel. In particular, the power of consumer word-of-mouth has been greatly magnified given the popularity and vast reach of interactive communication.
Companies such as Stonyfield Farm and Ben & Jerry’s have been benefiting from consumer ambassadors who raved, in the virtual world, about their social responsibility endeavours. For example, one consumer wrote enthusiastically about Ben & Jerry’s butter pecan ice cream and its support for an educational foundation, ‘besides the great flavour that the Ben & Jerry’s Butter Pecan Ice Cream offers you, a portion of the proceeds go to the Tom Joyner Foundation . . . [that] provides financial support to students attending historically black colleges and universities’ (Associated Content 2008). Companies can be proactive in using social media to engage consumers to be their CSR advocates.
Timberland, a company that is known for its environmental stewardship, launched the Earthkeeper campaign in 2008 to recruit one million people to become part of an online network designed to inspire real environmental behaviour change. As part of the Earthkeeper programme, Timberland launched an innovative global network of online social networking tools, including a strong Facebook presence, a YouTube Earthkeeper Brand Channel and a richly populated Earthkeeper blog, as well as an Earthkeeper product collection which serves as the pinnacle expression of the company’s environmental commitment (CSRWire 2008). Through this campaign, Timberland not only effectively communicating its sustainability initiative, but also engaging consumers to spread the word about this initiative and, importantly, the company’s involvement in this initiative.
Fieseler et al. (2010) suggested that communication through social media is dynamic in relation to traditional media. The global diffusion of social software like blogs, RSS feed, wikis, electronic forum, social networks have facilitated companies to attract prospects and consumer groups. Social media have the technological potential to speed up communication processes (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010) and to increase direct interaction, dialogue and participation across organisations and various audiences (Colleoni 2013; Schultz et al. 2011). Such interactive communications are referred to as “viral” because ideas and opinions spread like epidemic diseases through the network via word‐of‐mouth and are perceived as highly trustworthy sources (Colleoni et al., 2011; Schultz and Wehmeier, 2010).
Accordingly, social media has transformed the communicative dynamics within and between corporations and their environment. Social media networks are effective monitoring tools as they could feature early warning signals of trending topics. These networks may help business communicators and marketers identify and follow the latest sustainability issues. Notwithstanding, CSR influencers are easily identified on particular subject matters or expertise. For example, businesses and customers alike have learned how to use the hashtag (#) to enhance the visibility of their shareable content16 (Some of the most popular hashtags comprise: #CSR #StrategicCSR, #sustainability, #susty, #CSRTalk, #Davos2016, #KyotoProtocol, #SharedValue et cetera). Hashtags could be used to raise awareness on charities, philanthropic institutions and green non-governmental organisations. They may also help during fund raising events. Hence, there are numerous opportunities for businesses to leverage themselves through social networks as they engage with influencers and media.
The ubiquity of Facebook and Google Plus over the past years has made them familiar channels for many individuals around the globe. These networks have become very popular communication outlets for brands, companies and activists alike. These social media empower their users to engage with business on a myriad of issues. They also enable individual professionals or groups to promote themselves and their CSR credentials in different markets and segments.
Moreover, LinkedIn is yet another effective tool, particularly for personal branding. However, this social network helps users identify and engage with influencers. Companies can use this site to create or join their favourite groups on LinkedIn (e.g. GRI, FSG, Shared Value Initiative among others). They may also use this channel for CSR communication as they promote key initiatives and share sustainability ideas. Therefore, LinkedIn connects individuals and groups as they engage in conversations with both academia and CSR practitioners.
In addition, Pinterest and Instagram enable their users to share images, ideas with their networks. These social media could also be relevant in the context of the sustainability agenda. Businesses could illustrate their CSR communication to stakeholders through visual and graphic content. Evidently, these innovative avenues provide sharable imagery, infographics or videos to groups who may be passionate on certain issues, including CSR.
Moreover, digital marketers are increasingly uploading short, fun videos which often turn viral on internet. YouTube, Vimeo and Vine seem to have positioned themselves as important social media channels for many consumers, particularly among millennials. These sites offer an excellent way to humanise or animate CSR communication through video content. These digital media also allow their users to share their video content across multiple networks. For instance, videos featuring university resources may comprise lectures, documentaries, case studies and the like.
This contribution suggests that corporate communications managers and executives are in a position to amplify the effectiveness of their company’s CSR communication efforts. They are expected to create relevant content and to engage with stakeholders through different marketing communications channels.