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What do Timberland, Cadbury, Seventh Generation, Newmont mining, Adidas, Guardian Media Group and Marks and Spencer all have in common?

They all do better online communications than most about ethics, in different ways.

When I write “better”, I mean better than many others, and better than they used to be at communicating on this difficult and complex topic.

I’m not saying perfect. 15 years or so after it began, CR reporting is still a toddler, or at best, a gangly teenager, all oversized feet and bad hair.

Here’s who I pick out and a brief explanation as to why:

Newmont mining. The company’s external affairs manager in Ghana, Chris Anderson, regularly emails updates to stakeholders on issues affecting the company and their responses. His emails are warts-and-all in style, outlining critics, their views and Newmont’s responses. It’s low-tech, but authentic, honest and simple. A great transparency and pro-active engagement technique.

Timberland. Where to start? Regular reporting, honesty, transparency and yes, real authenticity, lead by CEO Jeff Swartz. The company sends HTML emails, holds frank conference calls, has a great website and is totally upfront about dilemmas. Communications leadership in action. If only the others in the sector could get up to this kind of speed.

Adidas. I like their website on sustainability. The language can be a little faceless and corporate, but they host critical voices on their homepage, which is unusual and commendable. The design is innovative, the quotes are engaging. Worth a look.

Guardian Media Group. The Guardian is trying to hold a constant online debate on CR related issues on their Guardian/sustainability website. It’s a commendable effort, and mixes up reporting and ongoing assurance with article links to important but relevant issues. The site needs to focus more on core media issues than it does, and is not linked off the main homepage, but is an innovative idea that is a great fit with the business itself. (Note: Ethical Corporation blogs on media and sustainability on the site and is paid to do so. If anything, that makes me inclined to more, not less, critical.)

Marks & Spencer. Their site is excellent, even if it’s nowhere near obvious enough on their main homepage, which is very surprising.

M&S runs consumer campaigns and compelling advertising on the sites of UK newspapers around what they do on corporate responsibility. Clearly they are committed to spending money on engaging consumers. And this is important. A company can spend 25K on a site, have video etc, but it’s what they then do to promote it that also counts for a lot.

Most just leave the site and wait until they are contacted to do something. M&S’s new campaign for consumers/stakeholders to help with their latest campaign around Copenhagen is an interesting idea.

Seventh Generation. The blog alone of Jeffrey Hollender, their president, is worth spending some time on. The company has led the way for years. His frank blog and twitter feed are ample evidence of this. Clear, honest and forthright. Great online communications from the heart. Here’s an example.

Cadbury have put up a website called Dear Cadbury.com which has an engaging interface once you realise where to click on the bottom right (not that obvious). The site is not linked at all off the main site, and is hard to find unless you search for it, which is rather odd. But once you find it and are in there, you see a good simple story, well told, and with NGO logos for added credibility.

All the above examples are just some of the improving communications I’ve seen from companies in the last few years. I’m sure there are more out there, and some I’ve missed or forgotten. I’d love it if readers posted their own examples.

Communicating on corporate responsibility is very hard to do. The issues are complex, senior management is risk-averse and lawyers hovver. Consumers are very hard to engage, time-poor and deeply sceptical about big companies. So more power to those that give it a try.

From my point of view, as an independent ‘commentator’ (of sorts), one thing they could all do is bring in more credible external voices to their reporting.

This is hard to do. It’s difficult to find informed NGOs, academics and others who can lend credibility to your efforts. It’s not always possible. I’ve been to enough stakeholder meetings to know that.

But it can be done sometimes, particularly on big issues, and the more one sees respected peers, public figures and organisations adding considered, rounded, and yes, critical views to corporate communications, the more convincing they are.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Is Timberland truly a company doing the right thing, or is it just another in the long line of corporate manipulators looking to cash-in on their portion of the ever dwindling booty, Timberland goes out of its way to explain how green it is and ethically it treats its employees. I have spent the last eleven months inside Timberland and its walls of trust and have some and come away with blockbuster information.

    Do you want more?

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