This article looks into Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and how businesses should operate online.

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A lot is written about what businesses should do for their employees, for their communities and for other stakeholders. But is there enough focus on what businesses should do in the online world?

I talk a lot about the need for consistency in what businesses do on sustainability and corporate responsibility. It therefore stands to reason that a great deal of harmony is needed between a company’s CSR efforts in the real world and their efforts online.

Ogilvy on Advertising in the Digital Age

I just finished reading the recently released updated version of Ogilvy on Advertising by Miles Young. I found this to be packed full of information on corporate responsibility and how brands can leverage this online.

Ogilvy on Advertising

This short article is in no way a full book review; however, I might follow up with one in due course.

There was one section in particular that caught my eye and it was a section on CSR on page 205. It goes as follows.


  1. Be extremely sensitive to anything which remotely smells of “green-washing” – of insincerely stealing the clothes of an issue.


  1. Be prepared to shock the audience into understanding that your issue is important.


  1. Have a clear ask: what do you want people to do, and, if they do it, how it will improve the issue.

I thought that these were great morals for companies to abide by online.

I mentioned before about Simon Mainwaring of WeFirst that I thought his input into corporate responsibility was highly valuable. There is also the input of someone else that I really like and that is Steve Hilton, who co-founded Good Business. Both of these gentlemen came into corporate responsibility after careers in advertising and after this latest effort by Miles Young, I think there is clearly a lot of room for professionals in this space to help improve the communications aspects of sustainability and corporate responsibility.

Back to the three rules that Miles Young has put forward, lets look at each of these in turn.

For the first rule, it cannot be emphasised how important this is. Effective CSR programmes are not cheap and a lot of good and valuable work can be undone if a company takes a foray into greenwashing and suffers the consequences in the media for it. Particularly with social media, consumers are smarter than ever and able to access information from their peers. When this is combined with well resourced NGO’s who can call out instances of greenwashing, there is really no way a company will be able to get away with it.

As far as the second rule goes, this was the rule that I was most pleased to see. Companies, particularly large companies have a tendency to play it safe and aim for the mushy middle. But that route is not only heavily congested but is also as ineffective as it has ever been. The companies that you see making headlines for their CSR programmes are the ones that are really pushing the boat out and going all in on sustainability. This has a lot of business benefits and consumers will reward you for your efforts if you go the extra mile.

The last rule is also very important. The saying that I have been pushing for some time now is that communication is the missing link in sustainability. I was writing recently about the opportunities that exist for corporate responsibility within the marketing department and you can find a link to this below.


Sustainability and corporate responsibility are complex ideas, which are interwoven with a number of wicked and not easy to solve problems. This is why they have lingered for so long. For me what Miles is trying to get at in his third rule comes down to materiality. Have you selected issues to focus on which are material and relevant to your business? If you do that, it will be a lot easier for consumers and other stakeholders to see the logic in your CSR programmes.

If you are a drinks manufacturer, you are going to want to be very strong on your water use and your plastic bottles. If you are a clothing manufacturer, you are going to want to be very strong on the labour standards in your supply chain and the chemicals in your clothing. If you are a construction company, you are going to want to be very strong on the environmental performance of your buildings and the health and safety on your building sites.

Sustainability means 100 different things to 100 different businesses. If you come from leftfield with your CSR programmes, don’t be surprised if these fail to connect with your audiences.

Also, for the last point, it really cannot be emphasised how important it is to get your customers involved in your CSR programmes. With the advent of social media this has never been easier and there is no reason why your customers, who are a key stakeholder group should not be involved online.

What you need to know

This article looked into CSR and how businesses should operate online.

We looked into three rules for digital social responsibility which were pulled out of the new Ogilvy on Advertising book by Miles Young.

The overall takeaways should be that greenwashing is highly risky, with a very small upside and the potential for a very substantial downside. That consumers are likely to reward you if you push the boat out and go all in on sustainability. Lastly, that you should pick issues that are material, be very clear with your communications and get your consumers involved in your CSR programmes online.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. How do you think responsible businesses should act online?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


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