When DARPA researchers connected computers between UCLA and Stanford in 1969, the Internet was born. But in the early days, the net was an academic oddity used for transferring arcane data sets. Then in 1971 Ray Tomlinson wrote a little program to send messages across the system and e-mail was born. The rest is history. E-mail proved to be the killer app; the use of network computing that everyone had to have.
Since then other killer apps have turbocharged the Internet- Web browsers, search engines and the like- but executives are only now discovering the killer app for CSR. The Wikileaks imbroglio shows the game changer is transparency. It's the Internet's killer CSR app. And if you were paying attention, you would have seen it coming back in 1995.
Actually, the story begins in 1986 when a group of UK activists published a pamphlet decrying McDonald's impact on everything from Amazon deforestation to childhood obesity. In the vein of pamphleteers like Thomas Paine, they were handed out around London. When McDonald's managers got their hands on a copy in 1990 they called the corporate counsel's office. Thus began the longest trial in British history.
In classic David versus Goliath style, the activists worked out of their living rooms to prove the validity of their claims in British courts. McDonald's, of course, threw the full weight of its legal resources against them. This strategy for dealing with unwanted criticism probably would have worked if not for what happened in 1995. That year Marc Andreessen released Mosaic for Windows, the first Web browser that allowed simple point-and-click graphic interaction with the information available on the Web. This technology proved the undoing of McDonald's legal strategy.
The case documents quickly became public on the web, making McDonald's efforts to suppress criticism transparently obvious. Even the pamphlet McDonald's was trying to smother became globally available to anyone with a dial-up Internet connection. The spotlight forced a strategic rethink and an effort to settle with the activists. But even the settlement negotiations were surreptitiously taped and made public as well. In all it was a PR disaster for McDonald's and an ominous portent of things to come.
Today "Wikileaks" makes the McLibel case look like child's play. Corporate executives should watch closely as diplomats cringe under the sudden and violent spotlight. The same scrutiny is coming to the corporate world. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has already announced the private sector is his next target. It may be that governments find a way to silence Assange (Wikileaks.org is already undergoing shadowy cyber attacks to shut it down) but it wont stop the wave of involuntary transparency that the Internet provides. Transparency is the Internet's killer CSR app. You can either get out in front of it or fall prey to it.
What should you do? It's uncharted territory, but there are some examples. Just this week S.C. Johnson launched a website called What's Inside that "takes a closer look at what's inside our products." Click through the site and you find all the chemical ingredients in Fantstik or Pledge. Yes, even product formulations, once considered trade secrets, are becoming public information. Johnson didn't do this without preparation of course. Back in 2001 the company created a process called Green List to screen the chemicals in their products and substitute them with environmentally friendly alternatives. Doing so prepared them for the launching of What's Inside. You should consider the same. The Internet's killer CSR app is coming to lift your kimono.
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