One of the key learnings of British Petroleum’s oil spill was the way the company has badly managed communications, discomforted the public audience, and weakly disclosed on news related to its environmental mess. We have learned, big time, that at times of crisis, companies are obliged to be as open and transparent as possible and expeditiously communicate updates to different stakeholders’ impacted.

Until recently, the concept of corporate sustainability and responsibility (CSR) among businesses has revolved around risk mitigation and self-regulation. Today, businesses are evolving from those reactive positions and moving toward more pro-active approaches to disclose on their various social and environmental issues. The rise of social media has caused several changes in the way CSR functions. Feedback through social media is immediate, permanent, and extremely public. It offered new solutions to advance transparency in business practices and has created online spaces where businesses can engage and drive a bigger impact. Today, more sophisticated companies are using social and new media channels to protect their reputation from misinformation, tell their story to target audiences and inspire new ideas and innovation.

When individuals feel strongly bad about a company’s performance on social or environmental issues, one small voice can quickly turn into an online campaign, difficult for even the most protected brands to ignore. For this reason, social media has become a driving force in many companies’ CSR agendas. It is a powerful communication vehicle that helps in amplifying CSR messages and positions a company as a good corporate citizen.

The dialogue exchanged between customers and companies can be highly beneficial for both sides; it can build and strengthen a sense of community, which is the fundamental purpose of social media. Lots of firms have excelled in this regard by creating active branded social media channels to engage and share information related to their CSR performance; a great example is General Electric Ecomagination‘s twitter account which was created to be a forum for fresh thinking and online debates related to clean technology and sustainable infrastructure.  Another example is Nestlé Creating Shared Value where the company shares updates related to their nutrition, water presentation and rural development program globally. Another great example is CISCO CSR sharing stories about how CISCO and its partners are bringing positive change in the world.

NIKE, the global shoe giant, launched an internal social media network called the “We Portal” which evolved to be a worldwide engagement hub, linking Nike’s employees around the social and environmental issue that they care about. Via the portal, employees can get their donation matched by Nike, create volunteering teams and earn points for giving and post community-giving opportunities. “We Portal” serves also as a platform to help employees generate ideas on how NIKE can be more sustainable and drive a positive impact globally.

These brands and many more made their company’s CSR efforts extremely personal just by being present and approachable to the people of Twitter and Facebook. I can easily engage with Jeffrey Hogue, Senior Director of Global CSR and Sustainability at McDonalds, to learn more about the environmental impact of his company’s iconic French fries OR can ask Ramon Arratia, Global sustainability director at Interface Floor, about how environmentally friendly are the raw materials used in the production of my office’s carp tiles.  I can also engage with Louise Nicholls, Head of Responsible Sourcing and Sustainability at Marks and Spencer, to discuss some initiatives to help offering clothes to needy people in rural areas of my country. It is that easy!

All in the spirit of sharing good news, those companies have a huge opportunity to ride the high wave of CSR through social media, spread the word, amplify their causes and enlarge a powerful network of their supporters. Building a network of supporters over time that aligns with a company’s values and actions can definitely help in protecting brands in times of trouble.

More businesses are now diversifying the usage of social media channels and tools to trigger a viral chain reaction of interest around their CSR and sustainability work. One of the best examples is Unilever via its Sustainable Living Plan; producing videos describing their Value Chain Strategy, designing dedicated websites, contributing to blogs and conducting live Twitter chats to promote their product’s sustainability plans and overall progress of their sustainability performance.

Academic institutions are also catching up with the trend. Both programmatic and academic initiatives in communicating sustainability are becoming part of the landscape of sustainability programs at many institutions of higher education. Yale University has created Yale Sustainability striving to enhance the culture of sustainability in the university, develop institutional sustainability models and communicate with CSR thought leaders, practitioners and social influencers to ensure a seat at the CSR table.

Leveraging CSR in the social media world can strengthen consumer trust and loyalty, encourage followers to take action and participate, and put a halo over the brand that dives in. It is a practice that keeps developing every day and more and more companies are getting into the pave. However, the management’s quality of those online platforms remains to be weak and requires more development in order to generate the needed impact and drive the most effective stakeholders’ engagement for a brand.