Get Engaged in the Social Media & Sustainability Confab

There's a vibrant social media and sustainability confab building in the Twittersphere.

Not so many years ago I’d joke with creative collaborators about universal consciousness, in the context of not worrying too much about trying to protect our ‘precious intellectual property’. Beyond word-of-mouth transmission, not to forget emails, we imagined a mystical, or at the very least a metaphysical process, where timely ideas rise up simultaneously around the world. Logically, if it could be thought by us, it could be thought by others too, right? In any case, the best advice for aspiring sustainability thought-leaders was to publish ASAP and hope to get some credit for originality, if anyone noticed at all.

In the new age of Twitter, I see that universal consciousness is now a daily and momentary reality, and totally explicable. If many people everywhere are talking to someone about everything, word of anything worth knowing will get out. So, if you have something to say, you better say it super quick! You also won’t die wondering if people are interested, because good stuff will be passed on quickly and occasionally the best will go viral, while the vast majority will sink with barely a trace as the next hour’s output from many millions of correspondents rolls in.

A week ago I wrote a column about my first month’s experiences on social media training wheels - formative Tweeting, tentative Facebook, stumbling around LinkedIn (see at Kind Tweeps republished and retweeted it. I described my mind opening to a new communications world and opined it was a game-changer for sustainability. It’s a call I made based on 10+ years of sustainability strategy advising and before that 20+ years of traditional print and TV journalism. Seven days later I know a whole lot more than I knew last week, including just how many people are thinking along similar lines, and I want to hear from anyone who shares my appetite for this expansive dialogue.

I do have more to say. I reckon it will take a few installments*. First, a re-encapsulation of key transformation drivers at work thanks to the explosion of social media and networks over the past five or so years, as a major subset of the online economy-cum-society more broadly. They are:

1. We’re already past Peak Big Old Media.

The traditional media, in both editorial and advertising fields, is being disruptively outflanked by the democratisation of publishing via social media, in similar fashion to how digital cameras put film to the sword but on a grander scale. This is now a survival discussion for the old media, especially newspapers as more and more pay walls are erected, and some are adapting better than others.

2. Green is good in the New Communications Order.

Sustainability is especially well placed to exploit this change because it is propelled by many passionate, articulate, stakeholder-savvy exponents with lots of appealing content and campaign skills who’ve been constrained by traditional media practices, priorities and prejudices. Big vested interests in the old economy can’t necessarily translate the same power and influence into the new one.

3. An intense round of Darwinian Capitalism with losers as well as winners faces many industry sectors.

Businesses have to think on their feet fast to handle this rapidly escalating instability in the marketplace for ideas and information, as well as for goods and services, because spin doctors, inflated advertising budgets and slow-motion corporate social responsibility aren’t working like they used to. I mean, who actually reads corporate sustainability and citizenship reports? They have pretty narrow, often quite technical audiences. But what larger mobs of people care about are emotive things like bulldozed rainforests, dead orangutans, oil spill-splattered birdlife, bleached coral reefs, dirty coal-fired power stations polluting their air, eroding beaches threatening property prices, water crises … and, just maybe, aspiring to quality, genuinely green products at the right price!.

My reinforced take-away is that we’ll be hearing a lot more about social media and sustainability, including the corporate kind, and that anyone actively engaged in this dialogue right now is privileged to play a role, however small, in shaping change in our world in real time.

Below are fresh, relevant views of professional commentators that I’ve distilled from the busy Twittersphere in the past week. I went looking for evidence, yet a lot of it just turned up in my Twitter feed. These snippets are organised (roughly) into the three domains of transformation I’ve identified, and taken together they tell a significant story. As with nature itself, and sustainability, it’s the inter-connections that are crucial … and the early signals suggest the force is strong in this set.

How the media is being transformed

• 'Twitter lowers the barriers to publishing almost as far as they can go.' - @ev - Evan Williams, CEO and co-founder of Twitter

• ‘… saying that Twitter has got nothing to do with the news business is about as misguided as you could be.’ -@arusbridger - Allan Rusbridger, Editor-in-Chief, The Guardian

• ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s free or paid, to survive it (journalism) must do more than just report what readers could find out for themselves, if they had the time.’ - @AlanKohler – A tough story for news media by Alan Kohler, co-founder of Business Spectator, on why journalism must add ‘meaning’ to information.

Why sustainability is made for social media

• ‘I believe we will soon be seeing a new wave in corporate responsibility, where, as paradoxical as it might sound, effective collaboration is the new competitive advantage. Companies that are constructive and contributing members of the social web will become better at engaging stakeholders, better at building trust and social capital – the currency of a modern licence to operate – and better at collaborating towards innovation. They will, consequently, likely outperform and outlast their peers.’ - @celesahorvath,

• ‘The past five years have seen a sea change in the world of online corporate and brand communication. The growth of blogs, social networks, microblogging and location-based mobile services has posed tremendous communications challenges for all companies. ‘– @socialinfluence - the SMI Social Media Sustainability Index, which also identifies GE, IBM, Starbucks and Ford as leaders in the social-media-meets-sustainability space

The pressure on business as online takes over

• ‘Social media has forever changed the way companies communicate. The world of marketing, PR and advertising get it, yet when it comes to communicating corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability policies the majority of companies ignore social media altogether.’ – Matthew Yeomans, Custom Communication, writing in The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Blog,

• ‘… most CSR efforts woefully miss the mark. To both improve the return on CSR initiatives and engage stakeholders, organisations are turning to social media to engage audiences and drive attention to these significant business building activities. Organisations are promoting strategies and programs that build social capital to stakeholders that matter including employees, partners and customers, while ensuring that CSR projects have business value.’ - Just Good Business: Incorporating Corporate Social Responsibility with Social Media, Research and Markets,

• ‘CSR and social media need to be on the same page. As a route to engagement, dialogue and building reputation, the power of social media is huge. Companies who think this through well, and execute well, will gain immeasurable benefits. Perhaps many companies shy away from the Soc-Med thing because of the potential risks. I think the balance has now changed and the potential risks are greater by not engaging in social media.’ - @elainecohen – csr-reporting,

*In another column I’ll take my shots at how different businesses and industry sectors might respond to make social media and sustainability work together for shareholders and other stakeholders. Vital issues include whether businesses are engaging people as citizens, or as consumers; whether they are trying to deliver a ‘social project’ versus promote a ‘commercial position’; and their openness to stakeholder collaboration?

Murray Hogarth is principal of sustainability strategy and communications consultancy the 3rd degree, advising mainly corporate and non-profit community group clients. He is Senior Adviser to the Total Environment Centre’s business sustainability program Green Capital, and Director of Community and Sustainability for consumer energy networking company Wattwatchers. He tweets as The_Wattwatcher.