“Open is good, closed is bad.” Not perhaps what you expect to hear from a just-retiring top Shell executive, but when Björn Edlund took the stage at the first Just Means conference on social media and stakeholder engagement he was almost painfully honest. He accepted that “large corporations are obsessed with control, rather than conversation,” but concluded that business is beginning to catch on. It’s about time. When SustainAbility first investigated corporate reporting and engagement over the Internet way back in 1999, we quoted New Economy guru Kevin Kelly on the report’s cover, to the effect that, “The network economy is founded on technology, but it can only be built on relationships. It starts with chips and it ends with trust.”
But if anyone read that as a prediction that hardware, software and websites would automatically merge the worldviews of business and society, they misunderstood, badly. Every new disruptive technology can be both an ally and an enemy for business.
Fully a decade after that first foray into the hype-saturated, soon-to-crash world of the New Economy, we returned to the fray in mid-2009, conducting research on the implications and applications of the new wave of social networks on corporate accountability and transparency — with the trust equation top of mind.
We concluded that, while the grown-up business case for social media is still emerging, there are already huge opportunities for greater transparency, engagement and collaboration. But companies must engage in honest, open, and perhaps difficult dialogue, not simply broadcast. Indeed, perhaps hardest concept for many companies to grasp is the idea that they should accept some loss of control, that allowing the conversation to evolve unedited, ensuring unfiltered — and often self-balancing — offers an opportunity to gain feedback from advocates and critics alike.
Consider Timberland. It has opened itself up for discussion and challenge on key sustainability issues — ranging from supply chain labor standards to climate change policy — with its pioneering Voices of Challenge platform.
Great, but even the most sophisticated companies can struggle with social media: anyone following Nestlé’s Facebook page saw in March what can happen when companies try to take back control of the conversation. In response to the moderator’s demand that participants stop altering Nestlé logos, one eloquently tried to educate Nestle on the benefits of social media: “Social media is about embracing your market, engaging and having a conversation rather than preaching.” Unfortunately the moderator disagreed, replying: “Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it’s our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus.” An explosion of comment followed, together with an apology from Nestlé.
In both cases the companies connected with stakeholders — Nestlé’s Facebook page has over 90,000 surprisingly active fans and the Timberland site has attracted a wide range of participants. Both also achieved a wider impact through the viral nature of blogs and Tweets. In the end, however, it was the style that temporarily positioned Nestlé on the wrong side — and Timberland on the right side — of this conversational equation.
About John Elkington
John Elkington is Executive Chairman and co-founder of Volans. His seventeenth book, published by Harvard Business Press in 2009, is The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World. His personal website is http://www.johnelkington.com.