Many companies today deliver social responsibility efforts in a polished package in order to enhance their communication strategy. As a J-school student interested in CSR, I have often wondered who was behind these strategies, and what goes into their work.
I had the opportunity to speak with Molly Malloy. A UNC School of Journalism alumnus who has worked with fascinating clients and firms, Malloy gained an interest in CSR before she even graduated. Check out her great insight below!
Tell me a little bit about what you do and how you got there.
I am currently the Senior Marketing and Development Manager at MacGillivray Freeman, an independent multi-platform media company based in Laguna Beach, California. The company got its start in the 1970s making some of the early iconic surf films. We now specialize in making IMAX documentaries about the natural world for leading institutions around the world (think Smithsonian) in addition to producing and distributing multimedia for all screens — mobile, online and more. It’s a small company, so I wear many hats – corporate PR and marketing, social media, branding, multimedia content development, partnership management, etc.
How did I get here? Now that’s a story I’m saving for a book that few people will read. But the short version is that I moved to New York City shortly after graduating from UNC to work in the Corporate Social Responsibility practice at the PR agency Edelman Worldwide. Through my Edelman client TED Conferences, I met an incredibly inspirational woman – a true explorer – who changed my life. Because of her, I moved to California to help build and launch the One World One Ocean Campaign – MacGillivray Freeman’s CSR project.
What originally sparked your interest in a CSR career?
The summer prior to my senior year at UNC I interned in the Global Communications practice at Starbucks Coffee Company in Seattle. I use the full company name as I still have college buddies who are convinced I was a barista that summer. One of the projects I worked on while at Starbucks was helping to finalize the company’s CSR report. In working on the report, I was floored by the company’s commitment to giving back to the community, environmental sustainability and to overall corporate stewardship. It was very clear to me that people who work at Starbucks are proud to work there because of the company’s robust CSR platform. With Starbucks boasting one of the most loyal brand followings in the world, I became really interested in finding out whether consumers (perhaps unconsciously) liked the brand for the same reasons employees liked working there.
And so, as an honor student in the Journalism School, I wrote a senior thesis (with Professor Boynton as my advisor) aimed at answering that question. I believe it was called “Good Coffee, Good Company?” I hope this blog post leads people to checking it out in the J-School library, as I’m pretty sure my grandpa is the only person who ever has. Despite the rumors of senior theses being terrible, I really enjoyed working on mine. And in writing it, I became a true CSR enthusiast and decided to find a job in the “industry” after graduation.
What do you see as the main challenge that affects practitioners in the social purpose/CSR field? How about for companies that are trying to conduct CSR?
I think there are two main challenges, and they are the same for both practitioners and companies: Authenticity and differentiation. In the five years since I’ve graduated, CSR has quite frankly blown up. With events like the Gulf oil spill and the financial crisis, consumers, particularly in the U.S., are demanding that their companies be more transparent and behave responsibly. And while this is a good thing – a great thing – it creates an authenticity challenge. With CSR now something that every company is expected to do, it means there are some companies out there that are not really doing anything substantial, but that are communicating the little they do very well. On the flip side, there are a lot of companies out there that are really moving the needle but aren’t communicating their efforts very well. A company who does CSR well is truly authentic – they walk the talk in terms of their commitments AND their talk is actually interesting and understandable to the average consumer. On an individual level, a good CSR practitioner needs to both hold their company accountable for their CSR platform and be an innovative communicator and marketer.
Because CSR is now such a prevalent concept, companies are also challenged with breaking through the noise when it comes to activating and communicating a CSR platform. Publishing a CSR report, hosting a community day, etc. won’t cut it. Companies must differentiate or die.
A great example of differentiation is the Pepsi Refresh Project (full disclosure: a former client of mine). With the launch of the Pepsi Refresh Project, PepsiCo became one of the first companies to activate their CSR platform as part of a 360° consumer-facing marketing campaign to fund crowd-sourced community projects. The entire campaign activation was activated online and at the time, driving with digital to the extent they did had never been done before. Pepsi also put their money were their mouth was – foregoing their annual (and massive) Super Bowl advertising buy to execute the campaign and help fund the winning projects. They brought in unique partners – GOOD and Global Giving – who gave the project instant credibility and authenticity on the philanthropy side. Pepsi reaped a wide range of benefits from the campaign, from increasing brand love with consumers, old and new, to winning countless awards for the campaign. So moral of the story, be authentic and be different.
How do you think digital marketing and new media have affected cause marketing?
Digital marketing and new media have turned cause marketing on its head – for better or worse. On one hand, brands and organizations have incredible tools and platforms at their fingertips to be able to communicate their CSR stories instantly to consumers. And the great thing about content-driven platforms like YouTube, Instagram, etc., means brands are tasked with showing not telling.
Using these same tools and platforms, consumers can now engage in a 2-way dialogue with companies and hold them accountable like never before – sometimes with game-changing repercussions. The 24/7 digital media engine puts the pressure on brands and organizations to ensure that their cause-related efforts are transparent and innovative.
On the other hand, new media and digital tools have in some ways contributed to a form of shallow cause marketing. We’ve created a culture of “like” and “+1” that can lead to mass consumer support of a cause that they may not understand but that seems sexy or cool. You have to ask whether that digital engagement is actually creating positive social change or if it is just what it is — a bunch of likes and +1s.
Invisible Children’s STOP KONY campaign is a good example of why brands and organizations need to use digital marketing and new media responsibly when it comes to cause marketing. Put out a compelling message and a cutting-edge piece of content on high-impact channels and you could very well reach millions of people overnight. But are you prepared to handle that level of engagement internally? Have you thought about how that engagement could negatively affect your cause, existing programs and relationships with key stakeholders?
But at the end of the day, when I visit sites like GOOD, Kickstarter or TakePart.com or see #WorldWaterDay trending on Twitter, I’m incredibly inspired about how far cause marketing has come and where it’s going because of digital marketing and media.
What have you learned about CSR since you broke into the field as an intern?
I’ve learned that there are a lot of inspiring stories out there — of people, companies and organizations doing good. A lot more than most people would think. I have also learned that it is easier to pitch a sad or scary story than a good one, and you have to work really hard to get a good story seen and heard in mainstream media.
What do you think we have to look forward to in CSR in the coming years?
I look forward to more companies like TOMS and Warby Parker building their entire brand on CSR concepts, effectively addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges while also making a profit. I think we will see some incredibly innovative CSR partnerships struck between seemingly very different organizations and individuals. And most exciting for me personally, I think we will see some awesome multi-platform CSR storytelling that is increasingly more entertaining and inspiring.
What advice to have for new grads hoping to work in CSR?
Since I graduated, I keep an email sent to me by a man I admire framed on my desk that says, “Keep your passion and energy burning every day, that’s the secret. The world is in front of you.”
That’s all you can and should do.