Responding to stakeholders, 140 characters at a time

10Jan10

A little while back I wrote a post about how Twitter could change the world of corporate social responsibility (CSR). At its heart, CSR is a process of learning and negotiation between business decision makers, and the people that they impact on. It may well turn out that that Twitter is a more powerful way to have this conversation than any number of hefty Global Reporting Initiative compliant, third-party assured CSR reports or NGO instigated postcard campaigns. Those lumbering organisational processes are just too slow and too centralised, now that information and judgements about corporate performance can be shared and assured in 140 character bursts.

The H&M clothes disposal saga which blew up over the last couple of days is a good illustration.

Cynthia Magnus graduate student in New York noticed that the H&M store on 34th Street was putting out rubbish bags full of deliberately destroyed clothing. Concerned about the waste of good clothing, which could have been donated to charity, Magnus contacted H&M headquarters and when she got no response, wrote to the New York Times. The Times wrote it up as a little story in their regional news section.

Then it got picked up by thousands of ordinary people on Twitter. Over 12,000 people have downloaded the story in the past few days, and it is still being passed around.

Judging by the pictures and 140 word bios, of the people who have passed the message on, they are predominantly young fashion conscious women, H&M’s core market, but it has also received a push from networks of New York residents, fashion and design students, crafters, greenies, fairtrade enthusiasts, and two powerful twitter mavens ‘Mom blogger’ @JessicaGottlieb and @Prsarahevans.

And people didn’t just retweet the message, they added their own comments, some focused on the environmental impacts of waste, others on the recession, others on the cold weather. Many just said how personally upset and disappointed they were.

After the story hit the number two spot of twitter’s trending topics hotlist, H&M responded, first through twitter, and then through the NY Times. Over the past few days they have posted four rather curt messages:

  • H&M is currently investigating why our 34th St store has thrown away unsold garments. This is not a representative example of our policy. RT
  • This incident is not a representative example of H&M policy. Full statement at facebook.com/hm. We are investigating. Please RT.
  • H&M is committed to taking responsibility for how our operations affect people and the environment. Visit http://www.hm.com/csr for more info.
  • H&M is committed to taking responsibility for how our operations affect people and the environment. Email info.us@hm.com to comment. RT

These messages got retweeted, but not with the heartfelt passion of the original story. Few people added their own personal opinion, the chains of retweets were relatively short, and retweets of the H&M message remain outnumbered by people passing on the original ‘bad news’ story.

From what I know of H&M they are a company that takes its responsibilities seriously. But this hadn’t come accross well in its responses to date.

So what did H&M do right?

And what did they do wrong?

  • They didn’t respond to the first approach by Magnus or the New York Times.
  • When they did respond, they weren’t able to do it in a personal way. They had only been using twitter as a very traditional marketing tool, so they were not well set up to jump into the conversation, and show that they take corporate responsibility seriously. Despite having 23,000 followers @hm has no personality for people to trust – one minute it is twittering about tattoos and kilts and 20% discounts like a bubbly marketer, next it is issuing statements like a corporate lawyer. And it only follows four other twitter accounts – all other corporate H&M accounts in different countries.
  • They didn’t answer the question. H&M’s twitter messages directed people to official statements on Facebook, the corporate website and email (presumably places that H&M felt were more controllable). But the statement on the corporate website talks about donating clothing which fails at the quality control stage, or is returned as faulty – not about what they do with the quantities of unsold end-of-line, and end-of-season clothing that fast fashion retailing generates.
  • They responded in a corporate language which killed the conversation. CSR folks are always working on how to get the message about social and environmental issues to ordinary punters – particularly employees and customers. But then when thousands of H&M customers started talking about an issue close to their heart, somehow, the CSR people at H&M have ended responding in a way that doesn’t connect with their customers. My impression, is that the people retweeting H&M’s line (particularly its last two messages) is that they tend to be older, more professional and more male than the original tweeters.

How could it have been different?
If H&M’s CSR team had been using twitter for stakeholder engagement – following, listening and publicly contributing to conversations about the things that matter to them they would have been in a much stronger position to respond.

  • They would have had a group of followers who trust their personal integrity and track record of giving good information, and who would retweet their messages with conviction.
  • They would have been able to draw people with first hand experience into the conversation. Their Twitter friends list would have included people from the charities and shelters that H&M donates clothes to, branch managers and shop floor staff, and people from other companies and organisations dealing with waste from clothing retail. These people could have contributed to the conversation, attesting to H&M’s policy, the seriousness with which they address the issue and the difficulties and complexities of the issue.
  • And they would know a few tricks about hashtags and tracking shortened links which would have helped them to facilitate the conversation.

What should they do next?

  • Use Twitter for stakeholder engagement. The H&M CSR team should take a leaf out of Timberland CEO Jeffrey Shwartz @Timberland_Jeff and put their personal selves out there following, listening and publicly contributing to conversations about the things that matter to them in their work.
  • Respond substantively in in a timely way, on twitter, blogs and through the media, about the issue of recycling and donating unsold clothing at the 34th Street branch and worldwide, not just leave it till the next CSR reporting cycle.
  • Recognise and experiment with the potential for social media enabled accountability. The should draw on their twitter friends and critics as a powerful group of people to help them understand and respond.

What if every person who twittered that they cared about this issue, showed that they cared by going into their local H&M store and asking what happens to unsold clothing? What if they twittered the results with the hashtag #h&mresponds? Now that would be a really powerful example of twitter powered accountability.

I am going to suggest it now….. Please retweet!



2 Responses to “Responding to stakeholders, 140 characters at a time”

  1. Twitter as a stakeholder engagement tool – there is so much for me to catch up on since I left the corporate responsibility game 3 years ago to focus on parenting – still I’m fascinated. Is there much being written on the topic?

  2. 2 mira

    i agree new means of reaching stakeholders can be developed and used but for me the core and key is how to ensure that stakeholders have the necessary balance of power so that they are listened to and that governance structures are not bypassed by the unscrupulous


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