How do we talk about sustainability on social media?

24 july 2014

The communication of sustainability using a social media platform has yet to be activated; even among companies reporting strong and sound sustainability strategies are afraid of Facebook.
How do we talk about sustainability on social media?

A large infrastructure company in Italy has recently published an announcement for a communication agency that has done "in the last three-year period; services of integrated communication - at least in the channels advertising, web, social media and ‘below the line communication’ and that they have a working group led by a project manager and an account with at least 10 years of experience".  What is strange about this request? This request is a bit odd considering that ten years ago, social media had their beginnings in Italy and the need for "certified expertise" is indicative of strong fear.


Companies are still reluctant to communicate on social media, and if they are still very hesitant when it comes to talking about products or brands, it is not surprising that they are equally hesitant about communicating sustainability. In Social Media Sustainability Index, just published by Sustainly, of 475 companies from all over the world analyzed for their communication plans of sustainability only half of them have channels or campaigns on social media dedicated specifically to sustainability issues. Looking only at the Big 10 (Pepsico, P&G, General Mills, Nestle, Mondelez, Mars, Coca-Cola, Kellog's, J&J, Unilever) only about 30% of their brands talk about sustainability through social media reaching 162 million fans on Facebook (of which 78 only with Coca-Cola), even half of those achieved with all other forms of business communications.


Those who, like us, have been operating in the field of sustainability consulting know that the main obstacle in the reporting of these matters is the effort of companies to become truly available to transparency. But we all know that transparency and the timely story of the activities, objectives centered or failed is the only paper to convince stakeholders and combat prejudice against the company. Certainly, if we combine the need for transparency on sustainability issues and the more compelling immediacy and ruthlessness of social media we can understand why few companies feel ready to experiment. Let's see two examples.


The most successful campaign of Dove "Campaign for Real Beauty", launched in 2004, and that doubled sales thanks to the buzz triggered, has on the official Facebook page 3,420 “likes” and made its only appearance on social media in 2009. On the other hand, in 2013 the company wanted to bet that a message clear and immediate as real beauty, though populated by "real" content consistent with it, could have been a bomb on the web, and in fact the video "Where real beauty sketches", launched as advertising on YouTube, now has over 64 million views and 18,000 comments only on the USA company’s channel (but no link to the Facebook page).


In 2010, Greenpeace launched a pressure campaign against Nestlé for buying palm oil for the production of the snack Kit Kat from Indonesian supplier Sinar Mas. The clerk in the campaign is supposed to take a break - "Have a break, have a Kit Kat" –but then is shown to bite the fingers of chimpanzees, the chimp as the symbol and victim of deforestation caused by the cultivation of palm oil, instead of being a candy bar maker, the brand is reinvented as a killer. Nestlé responds by obscuring the video parody on YouTube but Greenpeace republishes the parody on Vimeo gets almost 80,000 views in a few hours and over a million and a half as soon as the video reappeared on YouTube. Nestlé is forced to stop and think. The then Senior Operations Manager, Jose Lopez, then changed strategy, interrupts the supply with Sinar Mas and sits at the table with Greenpeace to discuss how to implement a sustainable supply of palm oil, takes part in the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil and collaborates with the 'non-profit organization Forest Trust for auditing its suppliers.


I must say, communicating using the social media platform on the topic of sustainability involves both fees and honors. Will companies be responsible for both?


By C. Speriani