Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, has become a natural outlet for corporations to enact positive change and integrate it into their business models. We recently spoke with Susan McPherson—a self-proclaimed passionate cause marketer and corporate responsibility expert—and asked her about the current #activism and #clicktivism movements, as well as upcoming trends in the CSR field. You can find her talk on #activism below.
Ad Council: What drew you to the CSR field?
Susan McPherson: I’ve always been an optimist, and I think that’s one of the reasons I found myself so drawn to the field of corporate responsibility. It used to be that companies were seen as the enemy of nonprofits—big, powerful corporations that existed only to make a profit, no matter the social, environmental or health costs. And of course, some companies still are that way. But I believe that the majority of companies are led by people who—when given the chance—will choose to use their power to make the world a better place. Businesses have the unparalleled ability to create a more sustainable, more generous culture, and I’m passionate about helping companies (both large and small) discover and activate that ability. It’s my belief that people have an inherent desire to do the right thing that led me to the CSR space and keeps me engaged every day.
AC: Your #Activism talk resonated with us, particularly after we covered the emergence of this type of “clicktivism.” Given that this form of online activism doesn’t guarantee offline results, what are things organizations can do to ensure #activism makes a positive, lasting difference in people’s lives?
SM: This is a very hot topic right now, especially with recent campaigns like #bringbackourgirls and the #ALSicebucketchallenge that have been dominating Facebook and Twitter feeds. For organizations that are simply looking to raise awareness about an issue or a problem, tweets and Facebook posts can go a long way in helping achieve that goal. But in order for that #activism to be truly meaningful in the long run, it must be paired with real-world action. Organizations should encourage social sharing, but they also need to be clear about what comes next, and continue to build that engagement over time. Do you want people to sign a petition? Donate? Volunteer their time? Attend an in-person protest? It all depends on the nature of the campaign, but the key is to define the action loud and clear well before the social media activism loses its momentum.
AC: What are one or two brands you think get it right with their CSR efforts and why?
SM: I love the work that Intel is doing to empower women and girls around the world via “She Will Connect” designed to close the technology gap for millions of women worldwide. Through its partnership with Girl Rising, a global action campaign for girls’ education and an inspiring documentary and digital media project, Intel has helped mobilize its own employees and communities across the world to take action in support of young women’s access to education. It’s a brilliant partnership that shows what can happen when nonprofits, companies and powerful storytelling come together. For authenticity, nothing beats Patagonia’s call for “less shopping.” Most important advice for companies as they take on CSR initiatives—ensure that the program and/or campaign is meaningfully tied to the core business of the organization.
AC: Looking ahead to 2015: any trends in the CSR field our readers should know about?
SM: I think we’ll start to see more businesses emerging that bake CSR into the core business model rather than have it as a separate department or an on-the-side initiative. Zady, Kate Spade or The Honest Company are all examples of this in action. Additionally, I think we’ll begin seeing a shift in how investors and boards value the companies that they support, with an increased focus on social and environmental returns. In other words, environmental and social costs will be built into a company’s overall accounting reports alongside economic costs. This shift is being driven by organizations such as The B Team, and I believe we’ll start to see real changes on this front beginning in 2015.
AC: Tell us about your regular CSR chats – what inspired them and who should participate? What do they get out of it?
SM: When I started #CSRchat four years ago, there wasn’t a forum anywhere online for CSR professionals to discuss major challenges, best practices and learnings from campaigns. Now, the chats have become a gathering place for exactly that kind of conversation. Participants range from CSOs at major corporations to reporting consultants to journalists to grad students to small business owners. It’s really for anyone who has an interest in being part of a community of people who are passionate about sustainability. Those who participate provide open, honest explanations of their companies’ challenges, successes and initiatives, which in turn inspire others to experiment with new ideas and elevate their programs in new ways. We cover a range of topics on the chats—supply chain, corporate grants, industry-specific challenges, reporting, employee and customer engagement, marketing and communicating CSR, dealing with crises—and often spotlight one company’s particular programs. There’s truly something for everyone, and I encourage anyone interested in CSR to check out an upcoming chat.