Companies want their corporate citizenship story to strike readers as both authentic and compelling. Increasingly, corporations are turning to social media to talk about their citizenship efforts. Even CSR reports are digitally interactive with cool sites chock full of facts, figures, diagrams and charts. Yet most corporate conversations on social media fall far short of moving anyone to re-imagine corporations as good and upstanding citizens.
Why the disconnect? The problem isn’t the content – it’s the language.
Social is Social – Whether It’s Digitalized or Not
“We view online social networks as media, not because they help us communicate, but because they extend human relationships.” –Chris Brogan, Trust Agents
Successfully telling the corporate citizenship story using social media is not primarily about having a proper strategy in place. It’s not even about finding the right platform, getting CEO participation, or tracking ROI – and it is certainly not about creating a viral video. (I could go off on a tangent about that one.) The rules of communication via social media are the same as those of real-world social interactions. What someone doesn’t want to hear from you at a party, they don’t want to hear from you online. Let me explain what I mean.
Human communication is a complicated topic, but to provide some orientation, let’s break it down into three types. Once we understand these three types and how they apply to social media, we can begin to analyze the overlapping details and exceptions. For now, the three languages:
1: The Language of Revelation
From the day we enter the world into our mother’s arms, we are able to effectively communicate. With screams and cries and coos, we say “I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m afraid.” Our mothers and fathers respond to us with murmurs that cannot be recorded in a book or defined in the dictionary, but carry incredibly rich meaning. With these unintelligible utterings, we reveal who we are and trust develops. Language 1 is the language of “know me.” It is the language that moves us to action we do not necessarily understand but we know is right. Language 1 is our primary language.
2: The Language of Manipulation
Around two years of age, we begin to notice something about the world around us. With a flick of the wrist and a burst of giggles, we send our pacifier flying to the floor – and voila! Without fail, a trusty adult leans over, picks up the pacifier, and returns it to us. It’s at this point that we realize we can control the world around us. We get better at this as the years pass. We learn that we can use language to manipulate and motivate. This is the language of advertising and politics. With the right words, the right movements, people will do what we want. Language 2 is also known as the language of motivation.
3: The Language of Information
Shortly after we discover the language of manipulation, we find ourselves in school where the only language that seems to carry value is that of information. We learn facts, lists, and numbers and we regurgitate them for the tests that tell us whether or not we have done well. We name what we see around us – car, bird, rock, bridge – and these names begin to make sense in relation to each other. This language is prominent in financial reporting – and unfortunately in CSR reports. Language 3 is not a compelling language; it simply describes what is already there.
Each language finds its way back into our lives at different stages of existence. After our baby years, when manipulation and information have begun to dominate, we find ourselves falling in love for the first time and suddenly we are swept back into our primary language. In coos and cries and nonsensical language, we beg “know me.” When we get married, we tend to sacrifice this language for the more practical purposes of manipulation and information. When we grow old and we are again needy and aware of what is most important, we return to language 1, the language of revelation.
The Rules of Social Media Communication
Because we are familiar and comfortable with the language that gets us what we want, and the language that describes the world around us, we naturally become increasingly proficient in languages 2 and 3. At our day to day jobs, we understand that manipulation and motivation are the languages that are valued.
Unfortunately, these languages do not garner trust. And when it comes to CSR storytelling, we simply must prioritize trust. In your social media communications, use the language of revelation. Compel your stakeholders to action with the language that tells them who you are, by reminding them who they are.
Below you’ll find tips for how to tell your CSR story using the language of revelation by the Heath brothers, who wrote “Made to Stick.” These guys know what it takes to speak to people in a way that will “stick.” Remember, we are not compelled by graphs, numbers or participation rates – and we are definitely not compelled by polished-looking men in suits.
Be ruthless in what you cut out. Messages have to be simple to stay in people’s minds. Make it short and sweet. This is the brilliance of Twitter. If it’s important enough to say, say it in 140 characters. No one cares how many dollars you gave or how many hours your people participated. They do care how the world is changing as a result of your efforts. Focus on impacts; eliminate the rest. Read more here.
Ever seen a movie where you knew what was going to happen the entire time? And by the end you hoped and prayed that all the main characters would die? And then they didn’t? And it was the most boring movie ever? Exactly. Two-thirds of the way through your story, make a hard left turn. The best way to do this is by telling people how you failed – and how you’re working to address that failure. Shock them with your unexpected authenticity. Read more about it here.
People have to be able to relate your ideas to something they can understand. If you share that you used 6,000 metric tons less carbon this year than last year….uuuh? I don’t have any idea what that means. Tell me something I can relate to. Is 6,000 metric tons the size of 3 school buses? Great. Tell me that. Just paint me a picture. Give me a visual that I want to share with my friends. Read more here.
Can I just assume that this one goes without saying? If your story isn’t credible, no one will listen to it. Cite some known sources. Explain why what you’re doing has an impact. Bring in community members. Whatever it takes, give evidence to your story’s credibility. Show that it matters to more than just you. Read more here.
This is where we drill down to the language of revelation. Speak in terms of love and loss; right and wrong; life and death. No one will remember your list of good deeds. They will, however, remember the story of the little girl whose little face lit up when you brought her the quilt that you made for her because she’s stuck in the hospital, her body weakened by cancer. (Watch the story here.) People want to be moved. Move them. Read why ‘Why Emotion, Not Knowledge, Is the Catalyst for Change’.
The combination of all of the above elements should create your story. Use social media to tell a story that is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotional. Use social media not to communicate, but to extend human relationships. And in so doing, draw us back to our primary language. Say to your stakeholder, “Know me.” And give your stakeholder the space to be compelled to action that they know is right. Watch Dan Heath talk about the power of corporate storytelling here.
Angela Parker is the co-founder and partner at Realized Worth, a leading employee volunteering and CSR consulting firm. As a senior consultant, she works with companies across the globe on creating highly engaging corporate citizenship initiatives. Realized Worth does more than design great employee volunteer programs; they know what it takes to motivate employees to participate in those programs. Angela writes regularly for the Realized Worth blog. You can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. This post was republished with permission from the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series is widely recognized as Canada’s premiere forum for dialogue and problem solving among sustainability professionals. Each year over 1000 sustainability change agents attend TSSS events to exchange ideas, to network and to be inspired by leading companies that have integrated sustainability into their business practices.