06/11/2013 08:42 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 10:52 GMT

How the Digital Era Has Transformed Companies' and Consumers' Experience of CSR

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been a buzzword for companies since the turn of the 21st century, particularly from 2010 onwards. However, the dynamics of CSR have changed during this period, due to the growth of new communication tools and new areas of operation. This has resulted in CSR developing a new set of parameters.

CSR: A brief history

CSR has traditionally been viewed as a corporate initiative that addresses the effects of a business's actions on wider society. Such initiatives typically focus on items such as maximising wastage recycling and ensuring an even balance between profit and people. Often, those strategies fail to resonate with consumers, who rarely see the output of them, forcing the question: is traditional CSR truly valued by the consumer?

For companies to show consumers they truly care about the wider societal effects of their business, a high-level exposure platform is needed. This platform has arrived in the form of the digital era.

Digital arrives: CSR at a crossroads

The digital era's arrival has brought with it both opportunity and challenge for CSR exponents.

On a positive note, the communication tools generated by digital media allow companies to better educate the consumer about the CSR work they are doing. Whether this is achieved through online campaigns, social media or content marketing, the consumer now has the opportunity to understand the societal benefits companies are having.

That said, the digital era has brought with it new hurdles for companies. Increased knowledge sharing means that companies' actions can now be exposed and critiqued more widely and easily than ever before. The effects of companies' behaviour is magnified and scrutinised in the digital environment, highlighting the need for companies to behave responsibly. This is heightened by concerns about levels of digital usage among the young and the need to minimise the amount of inappropriate content available online. As part of their role in society, companies are expected to be responsible outlets for the content they publicise and the way they act online.

Crucially, this new environment - where corporate responsibility is a pre-requisite - has a global audience, meaning that irresponsible behaviour in the digital space is easily identifiable. Reputations are - more so than ever - under threat as a result of companies' wider societal actions.

Digital grows: Problems are afoot

Being a responsible entity on digital platforms has proved hard for even the biggest of digital juggernauts. Facebook's decision to allow the sharing of violent images by its users has led to the media and the public questioning the social media site's attitudes towards what a young digital audience can be exposed to. In addition, some people feel that Ryanair's recent Q&A with Michael Healy showed an irresponsible attitude towards the way company leaders should communicate with the public.

One of the most common sources of digital blunders has been corporate reaction to natural disasters, whether it be Kenneth Cole using the Cairo uprising to upsell a summer sale or KFC telling their Twitter followers to watch news warnings of a forthcoming tsunami whilst eating their chicken.

These examples show that companies have yet to fully acknowledge and embrace Digital Social Responsibility (DSR). The digital era has only just begun, and its continued expansion is going to place increased demand on companies to be responsible in this area.

Digital's Future: Where do the future DSR challenges lie?

As society becomes ever more digitally orientated, the expectation for companies to behave responsibly in this space is growing. For instance, consumers almost certainly spend less time thinking about Nike's production ethics on a separate continent, far removed from their daily lives, than the material their children can potentially be exposed to online, or how a company presents itself in the face of natural disaster.

This means that companies need to take the following steps to ensure they are digitally responsible and meet expectations in this area:

• The effects of DSR strategies are seen by more people than the results of traditional CSR measures, therefore DSR requires as much - if not more - corporate focus vs. traditional initiatives.

• The digital era does not offer a hiding place - everything companies say or do online will be noted and viewed in the context of whether they are being responsible social outlets. Vigilance and sensitivity are therefore key at all times.

• Due to the average consumer's proximity to digital media, he/she is likely to resonate more strongly with DSR than the often distant nature of the effects of traditional CSR.

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