SOURCE: 3BL Media, LLC
“You got me there.” That’s what a vice president of marketing for a global pharmaceutical company told me a few years ago when I asked about the impact of her company’s corporate social responsibility communications. At the time, this company was spending millions every year on communicating its programs.
Two full-page ads in the most recent issue of The Atlantic reminded me of this conversation and the reason why it’s so important for corporations to think carefully about how they tell their social purpose stories.
The first ad from Chevron states that the company agrees that “Shale Gas Needs to Be Good for Everyone” and describes how they have learned to extract natural gas in a more environmentally responsible way. Chevron has also developed a We Agree web site that gives readers the opportunity to agree with the company’s position on 10 statements including “Oil Companies Should Support Small Business” (41,060 agree), “It’s Time Oil Companies Get Behind Renewable Energy” (49, 647 agree), and “Oil Companies Should Support the Communities They’re A Part Of” (44, 423). Unfortunately, as of Sunday, only 1,811 people had agreed with the statement in Chevron’s ad that “Shale Gas Needs to Be Good for Everyone”.
The second ad is from IBM and is anchored by the headline “From Mainstream to Revenue Stream.” The message is about the untapped potential of cloud computing and how this new technology is transforming business models and creating new opportunities that companies can capitalize on. The ad contains a subtle reference to IBM’s “SmartCloud,” but its primary focus is sharing a point of view about an important business trend. The “From Mainstream to Revenue Stream” ad is a part of the company’s ubiquitous Smarter Planet program and communications campaign.
I’ve been thinking about what can be learned from the Chevron and IBM ads and what this means for more impactful CSR communications. Here’s my take on the approach that each company has taken along with a new set of CSR marketing “Ps” to help guide social purpose messaging and decide how, or if, it’s appropriate to tell your story.
Purpose: Chevron is trying to convince us that “Shale Gas Needs to Be Good for Everyone” (a point of view that, so far, very few people seem to agree with) and that the company is extracting natural gas in a more responsible way (hydraulic fracturing). IBM’s approach is more purposeful because it isn’t about them. It’s about what they believe is important for us to know about cloud computing.
CSR Marketing P #1: Focus social communications on the issue your corporation is addressing and what you believe ought to be done rather than trying to convince people that your company is socially responsible.
(As an aside, on the second to last page of Bruce, Peter Ames Carlin’s new biography of Bruce Springsteen, The Boss says that the E Street Band is an organization with a purpose. This statement really nails Springsteen’s mission and made the whole book worth reading.)
People: Chevron’s statement that “Shale Gas Needs to Be Good for Everyone” is signed off on by two people: the Chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and the company’s vice president of the Appalachian/Michigan Business Unit. Nothing against these particular people, but doesn’t a statement like this call for a message from the CEO? Plus, not many readers will know about the Marcellus Shale development in Pennsylvania – presumably the reason Chevron included these people. IBM, on the other hand, substantiates its message by including a reference to how 3M is “using the cloud to analyze image design based on eye movement.”
CSR Marketing P #2: Make sure people or examples that are credible and inspiring are featured in your social communications.
Programs: The Chevron campaign is new so it’s hard to say whether or not the company has committed to a strategic program-based approach to this aspect of “Human Energy” or if this is just a tactical promotion that may be an attempt to counter the message of Promised Land, Gus Van Sant’s controversial new film that follows two corporate salespeople who visit a rural town in an attempt to buy drilling rights from local residents. Smarter Planet, on the other hand, is a program that IBM launched in 2008 that, according to Wikipedia, “seeks to highlight how forward-thinking leaders in business, government and civil society around the world are capturing the potential of smarter systems to achieve economic growth, near-term efficiency, sustainable development and societal progress.”
CSR Marketing P #3: Only undertake corporate communications about social initiatives that are program-based and substantive. Cause-related promotions will be seen as opportunistic and can damage your reputation.
Partners: Last week, Chevron’s ad in The Atlantic also got the attention of the environmental journalist Richard Schiffman in The Guardian, “Chevron’s ad in the Atlantic is co-signed by Bruce Niemeyer, a vice-president of the corporation and Radisav Vidic, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh,” wrote Schiffman. “Professor Vidic’s office sits a stone’s throw from the Chevron Science Center, a 15-storey state-of-the-art chemistry laboratory and teaching facility made possible by the philanthropically-minded corporation.”
CSR Marketing P #4: Only include partners in your social communications if they are credible and won’t be seen to be in a conflict of interest with your program and message.
If your business doesn’t live up to these four Ps, I wouldn’t recommend spending your money on external communications. Better to first understand the DNA of what you’re doing and why and focus on engaging your employees.
According to the Boss, you should “Talk about a dream, try to make it real.” I couldn’t agree more.
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KEYWORDS: People, Social Action & Community Engagement, Chevron, IBM, csr, communications, sustainability, Energy, smarter planet