How social media support social value

By Martin Vogel

Eurostar: slow to board the social media bandwagon
Eurostar: slow to board the social media bandwagon

Book review: Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business by David Jones.

Who Cares Wins by David Jones is the latest contribution to an increasingly crowded publishing niche focussed on how business can do well by doing good.  Jones, who is chief executive of the advertising agency Havas, shares the view of us here at Vogel Wakefield that the rise of social media is an important driver of social responsibility in business. He points to a tweeter using the name @BPGlobalPR who outpaced the official BP Twitter account in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The tweeter gained 190,000 followers to BP’s 18,000 with posts like this:

“Safety is our primary concern. Well, profits, then safety. Oh, no – profits, image, then safety, but still, it’s right up there.”

A better and more recent example, in my view, was the campaign that rapidly escalated on Twitter and Facebook to force companies to withdraw advertising from the News of the World in the wake of the phone hacking revelations. In a matter of days, News International made the decision that the News of the World was no longer a sustainable business and News International itself still faces a reckoning at the Leveson Inquiry and elsewhere .

David Jones gives a good account of how consumers are able to hold businesses to account in unpredictable ways, often before companies’ PR machines have even grasped what’s going on. When Eurostar trains became stranded in the Channel Tunnel in freezing conditions at Christmas two years ago, customers were venting their anger on Twitter while Eurostar’s official Twitter account was preoccupied with promoting short breaks.

Social media have lowered the barriers to entry to the public domain. Individuals can disseminate messages to audiences as easily as large corporations. Thus empowered, they are asserting their values and putting pressure on businesses that don’t live up to them. As David Jones puts it:

“We are living in an open world where transparency and authenticity are the most important values; where people can and will find out everything about your brand and share it with each other; where consumers want to know what a company or brand stands for; and where brands are defined by what consumers say to each other about them, not what the brand says to consumers.

“This is the new playground for the Social Brand. It’s changing the rules of the marketing world. It offers enormous opportunity for those who get it right, and a very fast and public humiliation for those who don’t.”

He cites statistics from research on social attitudes carried out by his company: 74 per cent of consumers think that business bears as much responsibility for driving positive social change as governments; 80 per cent think they have a responsibility to censure unethical companies by avoiding their products.  I would imagine that these would be challenging findings for many a business leader. They point to a social environment which puts the way profits are generated firmly at the centre of the contract between consumers and businesses.

Jones is clear that it is no longer adequate, if it ever was, for companies to spin a socially aware image. In fact it is probably more risky for a company to try to paint itself falsely in socially aware colours than for it to be candid about its shortcomings. The underlying reality is what counts for consumers and messages that are not congruent with it will be exposed.

But the book never really breaks free from its roots in advertising. There is no discusssion of how public sentiment about companies has been shaped in recent years by the financial crisis. This has fuelled a deep distrust of companies that seem to be in business just for themselves. The phone hacking scandal has demonstrated the immense impact when public displeasure is mobilised.

The companies that will weather the storm are those that have a strong and true story to tell about how their business contributes to society and the needs of its members. Most businesses, if you think about it, are founded with a social purpose. Think of Apple which has made technology accessible by ensuring that it just works even for those who aren’t tech-savvy. Think of Ikea which allows people to furnish their homes with good quality, contemporary designs at an affordable price. This is not to suggest that such businesses have no social downside.  But their informing purpose is excellence in meeting customers’ needs; making healthy profits flows from this.

People have become distrustful of business in recent years because of the impression created by companies whose motivation to generate profits has become disconnected from the social purposes for which they were founded. So we get supermarkets who squeeze the margins of their suppliers so tightly that they drive farmers out of business and internet companies that deliver great products but undermine them by playing fast and loose with users’ privacy.

The financial crisis and the prospect of prolonged austerity have fuelled demands to moderate the extreme drive to accumulate capital that pays scant attention to adverse social impacts. This is not so much an anti-capitalist movement as a hunger for a capitalism that locates itself in a moral context – the kind advocated by Adam Smith and that used to be characterised in Britain by firms such as Cadbury’s, Lloyds and Marks and Spencer.  That the social value agenda is now mainstream is indicated by the positions being taken by political leaders. David Cameron has outlined five Big Society priorities for business. Ed Miliband has spoken of the need to discourage predatory capitalism. Vince Cable is developing ideas to end the quarterly reporting of financial results and foster an emphasis on long-term value creation.

Who Cares Wins is concerned with how companies do business. But the bigger point now is that what companies are in business to do is also in play. David Jones is right to emphasise that businesses will thrive in future only if they are socially responsible. But this represents no more than the hygiene factors of doing business. Opportunities exist for those who innovate by placing social value at the heart of their corporate purpose.

Who Cares Wins by David Jones.

Image courtesy OliverN5.