With backlash an ever-present threat for brands that don’t understand today’s volatile social media scene, corporate social responsibility has become something to navigate carefully. One option is to do good in relative silence, and hope that it touches the community or beneficiaries in the way you hoped — without fanfare. But ideally, anyone in communications wants to showcase their company’s social good to a broad audience, and get kudos for it.
Campaigns can go viral on Facebook and Twitter overnight — to the positive or crisis-inducing negative. So, how do marketers lay the groundwork of a campaign that will create positive conversation? It is key that a brand support an initiative that is important to the employees and authentically aligned with the company’s values. Never just piggyback onto the social justice meme of the moment. Steer clear of all things exploitative or gimmicky, and look for ways to get people involved via social media regardless of whether they donate or not. If they like what they’re viewing on social, they may be inclined to donate — or even buy your product — without requiring an aggressive CTA.
Four responsible social campaigns that are doing it right
Airbnb Citizen: Disaster Response
The Model: No-cost temporary housing for disaster victims and first responders — promoted via mainly organic social media sharing and earned media. Victims and relief workers in need of emergency housing can go on the AirBnB site or app and communicate directly with hosts who have volunteered to open their homes. Both guests and hosts must register for an AirBnB account to access the program.
What’s Good Here: Airbnb is showing the world that its vast network of peer-to-peer rentals can be used for something other than undercutting hotels and traditional vacation rentals. The long-touted benefits of booking through Airbnb (e.g., a “real person” host, a way to stay in residential communities rather than tourist zones, access to more affordable spaces for families) are showcased to their ultimate potential.
The program allows hosts to do something good, and very necessary, with a space that they already possess. And it leaves disaster survivors with an indelible memory of who helped them find shelter in their hour of greatest need.
The Initiative: World Central Kitchen #ChefsForPuertoRico
The Model: Celebrity chef Jose Andres activated his World Central Kitchen Chef Network to swiftly pull together food service volunteers, organize logistics and distribute mass quantities of fresh food to hurricane-ravaged areas. He even got other famous chefs to lend their star power. His efforts around Hurricane Maria have been non-stop for 30 days — he and his team reportedly cooked and served 100,000 hot meals daily.
While media were all over the story, Andres’ Twitter account is the best place to get daily updates. He posted candid selfie-style video logs from the time his World Central Kitchen team landed in Puerto Rico.
What’s Good Here: Everything is good about Chef Jose Andres’ heroic efforts feeding displaced disaster survivors. While few people had heard about World Central Kitchen prior to the disasters, by three days post-Harvey, restaurant professionals were flocking to volunteer and companies were honored to donate. Because really, what food brand wouldn’t be honored to have the world’s best chef working with their product?
Chef Andres’ efforts in Puerto Rico led the Washington Post to dub him “the face of American disaster relief,” and may very well set a new model for how private citizens can lead relief efforts. The smartphone videos he posted on Twitter were heartening and truly inspirational: They showed how big of a difference a small team (albeit with big donation support) can make, and how very much the disaster victims needed the help. Seeing the world-famous chef almost in tears because he wished he could do more… Well. It’s enough to make anyone open their wallet. It also familiarized a few million more potential customers with the chef — which is excellent because, with his recent expansion into upscale-casual chain restaurants, millions more people can afford to enjoy his food.
Virgin Mobile USA
The Campaign: #DonateMyPlate
The Model: This is a corporate social responsibility campaign with an Instagram-savvy hashtag and a timely holiday tie-in. Every time a person hashtags their food photos with #DonateMyPlate, Virgin Mobile USA donates funds for one meal to Feeding America.
What’s Good Here: In a time when “slacktivism” is one annoying byproduct of social media, and incessant food photography is another, Virgin Mobile USA has given both habits the power to effect greater good — if people manage to use the right hashtag. Social sharing can, in this case, effect real-world change, and the social media user doesn’t have to pay a dime. The brand is not fund-matching user donations, or donating that ever-mysterious “portion of the proceeds” of product sales. For every hashtag usage, a needy person gets a meal, through the philanthropic partnership already set up between Virgin Mobile and Feeding America.
There are other, more promotional components to this campaign: If people join the Inner Circle wireless plan, 10 meals will be donated. If they tag @VirginMobileUSA with #DonateMyPlate, they’re entered to win a free iPhone and plan. The giveaway greatly amplifies the campaign’s shareability.
The Campaign: Bring It On
The Model: In its fifth year, H&M’s worldwide garment collecting initiative again promoted its call for clothing donations via a YouTube campaign – this time, not fronted by a dancing celebrity. A narrated digital video documentary hits the mark halfway between stylish spoken-word video and thought-provoking short documentary. The campaign hashtag #closetheloop further clarifies the brand’s goal of achieving sustainability through closed-loop textile manufacturing/recycling technology.
What’s Good Here: As one of the clothing brands that truly helped to take “fast fashion” to new levels of affordability and stylishness, H&M has created a consumer cycle that modern recycling and reuse can’t handle. It’s not the only fashion brand responsible for this, true, but it was the first to step up and assume responsibility for the problem. In so doing, it took a lot of criticism: When the program kicked off, hardly any of the garments collected by H&M were made of recyclable fabric. Critics accused the company of making an empty gesture, saying the technology did not exist to recycle the vast amount of garment donations. However, the next year, the chain launched a “Close the Loop” collection showcasing what could be done with recycled textiles. It has expanded the scope of the program each year, reinvesting proceeds from sales of its donated-and-repurposed textiles into technological innovation.
And, in an excellent example of using “social media listening” to recalibrate a campaign: After getting a lot of criticism for engaging the activist/artist M.I.A. to front its promotional video in 2016, the brand chose to put garments in the spotlight the next year, focusing on the process of clothing collection, reuse and recycling. H&M, which in previous years has been accused of unethical manufacturing, also announced that half of the campaign proceeds would go toward equality programs for marginalized groups.