In a week that has seen ten people appear in a British court accused of naming on social media a woman who was raped by a footballer, the question has to be asked: how much freedom of speech should we actually have?
Social media have given a generation the freedom to say what they like with almost no accountability or comeback. For many people, these media are the first places to go to let off steam and express (often strong) views and opinions. They have provided accessible platforms for people outside the media industry to affect and shape the reputation of individuals and organisations.
Expressing opinions gives people a voice and allows them to be involved in the discussion. In many cases companies are using new media to learn from and engage directly with their consumers. The concern for many is that, because it can be used as a damaging tool and with such limited control or regulation, do companies have as much protection as individuals?
On individual cases, the legalities are becoming clearer and in the court case mentioned above, the law gives the victims and alleged victims of rape and other sexual offences lifelong anonymity. Those commenting on the case, therefore, are deemed to have broken the law by simply naming the victim on Twitter and can be held accountable.
In traditional media, individuals and businesses are protected by slander and defamation laws. In the case of social media, the most appropriate legislation for an organisation would be the Malicious Falsehood law (intentionally false statements made to cause damage to a person's business reputation), but complainants must be able to prove that: a) the person who published the statement did so knowing it was false or did not care whether it was false or not, and b) financial loss has to have been caused or is likely to have been caused.
There have not been any high profile social media 'malicious falsehood' cases to set the precedent yet and I doubt there will be. Social media move at such a pace that a costly court case would take a long time to reach a conclusion and the outcome would be almost pointless as the damage would already have been done. It is more effective for companies, instead, to embrace and engage in these conversations.
As reputation experts, we at Echo Research have certainly seen a rise in companies using social media to their advantage and, although they will never be able to control the content, they can 'get involved' and counteract negativity with proactivity. They should also be using negative opinion as a guide to emerging issues and respond accordingly. If tracked in the right way it can become an extremely insightful tool.
A recent abusive tweet to Team GB diver Tom Daley sparked the Director of Public Prosecutions to issue a rethink about social media rules on abuse, saying: "in my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media". It leads me to wonder if this discussion should be widened out to protect organisations or should freedom of speech allow people to air their views and frustrations about businesses regardless of the negative effect?
a) Ignore it
b) Go through a long a costly court case or
c) Embrace, join in and use it to your advantage
Done right, our money is on c).
In the early days of corporate social responsibility (CSR), it was enough to plant a few trees and attend the odd ribbon-cutting junket or photo opportunity. Companies could continue to support lax labour practices, and make few - if any - inquiries into the environmental conduct of their suppliers. So long as profits rolled in, customers - and shareholders - were satisfied. CSR-associated activities were seen as 'bolt-on', rather than critical to business. Indeed, our research shows that in 2000, only 11% of CEO's believed CSR to be integral to improving commercial success. Occasional CSR activity was enough, in a world where sustainable practices were seen as just another PR-related function.
Fast-forward to 2010: Global media attention has skyrocketed, trust and reputation are directly linked to sustainable practices, and both have an immediate, measurable impact on the bottom line. Clearly, the days of superficial 'greenwashing' are behind us, as evidenced by Echo's recent study 'A World in Trust,' analysing trends and practices in global CSR.
Working with the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF), Echo's survey of over 50 global business leaders included Diageo's Paul Walsh, Coca-Cola's John Brock, and Whitbread's Alan Parker CBE among others, to analyse the latest thinking and insights in CSR. The qualitative data was complemented by business media content collected by media search engine Echo Sonar, and then scrutinised by Echo's analysts.
Our findings tell the story of a shifting landscape. Stakeholder research, feedback and co-creation are seen as key elements, while stand-alone CSR departments are in steady decline.
Indeed, an astonishing 96% of those surveyed told us that sustainability efforts needed to be integrated into their respective strategies and operations. Furthermore, 88% believe that businesses should demand similar commitments from suppliers.
This recognition comes at a critical point in time. Following BP's 'summer of the spill' and the more recent - and scarcely less devastating - toxic sludge in Hungary, companies recognise the increased global scrutiny that is upon them.
Importantly, as resources and raw materials are subject to increasing scarcity and price pressure, companies must not only improve conservation, but also drive innovation. An overwhelming 91% of interviewees believed that their companies would need to employ new technologies to address sustainability issues in the next five years in order to remain competitive. This is a clear example of sustainable practices powering business growth, and of these practices playing a greater role in long-term strategy.
Despite the fact that there has been recent doubt as to the business value of CSR, 69% of those surveyed believed that companies dedicated to long-term sustainability would see better financial results. Indeed, many organisations are holding fast in their commitment to sustainability as a business imperative, despite the decelerating effect of the recession.
The challenge is clear, the rewards evident: those companies that best integrate CSR into overall business practices will reap the rewards born of increased consumer confidence. Indeed, it was one of our interviewees who put it best, tying business and CSR together, as he said "Sustainability is conducting your business in such a way that future generations can do the same".