Telling Your Company’s CSR Story Better in The Social Media Age

Nothing is more inherently fascinating than stories around how companies confront and overcome dilemmas to do with human rights issues, their environmental impact, or how they relate to their communities. In theory.

But in practice, most companies – even when they use powerful storytelling media such as video – fail to capture the attention or the imagination of their target audience.

It’s not because the stories aren’t there to be told – it’s because companies have been reluctant in the social media age, which is all about the personal, to abandon the shield they are used to hiding behind – the corporate brand.

People relate to stories about people, not corporations. So to really make an impact, you have to be prepared to showcase individuals, and to talk about the obstacles they needed to overcome to achieve the beneficial outcome.

Yes, even when some of those obstacles may have come from within the company. You get credit with most audiences for admitting that you’re less than perfect.

And if you can’t do that, then at least get an outside independent commentator to reflect on the issues around what you’re doing. The narrative becomes personal through them, even if it’s not substantially their story.

You can see companies experimenting with these approaches to better story-telling, even though few have fully cracked the code yet.

I mentioned in a previous post how Heineken led the way, as it often does in this area, when it commissioned a noted YouTube vlogger Ben Brown to visit their carbon-neutral brewery. His audience of millennials saw his exploration of this fascinating place as a perfectly natural extension of his usual videos travelling and exploring different parts of the world, making him a trusted narrator for the work Heineken was doing. Check it out below.


Drax also does a good job, for instance. It recently got noted environmentalist Tony Juniper to examine, in a half-hour video documentary (below), to narrate the issues behind Drax’s move towards generating energy from wood chips. It’s an example of a well-crafted exploratory narrative – investigating issues and practices in an accessible and interesting way.

Their instincts also show good judgement on how they tell their story in other ways too. To encourage people to understand their business, they tell the story through the eyes of Gary Preece, one of their engineers. The willingness to put faces onto such narratives helps to humanise the business, and gives people someone with whom to empathise:

However, even Drax is scratching at the surface of the power of this approach, since it still avoids taking risks with what it talks about. It’s a more human face, but still an organisation that hesitates to admit it may be less than perfect.

If you can’t bring yourself to tell the story of your own people, then you can at least facilitate telling the stories of your stakeholders, or others whose lives you touch.

Cisco, for instance, humanises the narrative of how it supports micro-entrepreneurs in Uganda by telling the story of a named individual – Sarah Balisanyka – and the challenges she has been able to overcome. Such stories can be much more engaging – so long as the company knows its place. A mentor, a facilitator. A vehicle whereby people have been able to create change for themselves:

Others have gone even further. Starbucks, for instance, wanted to inspire people to come together for the good of the community – particularly in the face of an increasingly polarised society in the US – so they commissioned the series of ‘Upstanders’ videos. These are some of the most powerful examples of storytelling you will currently find being promoted via social media channels:

And the most remarkable thing about them? Starbucks doesn’t feature in these stories at all.  It is purely the enabler. It still retains the positive association of having done so, but by keeping the brand out of the way of the story it made for a much more natural and authentic narrative.

These are the communication channels for the social media age: Enabling other people’s compelling stories to be told; Using third party narrators to show you to the world through their eyes; Using the power of video to capture the attention of your target audiences by going to the social media channels where they already direct their attention, rather than expecting them to come to you.

If you’re still simply pumping out CSR reports and wondering why your stakeholders fail to respond, there is a lot to think about here.


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