Why Americans make good online citizens

US companies do not feature highly overall among the world’s best online communicators, but there is still much to learn from those that are ‘doing good’ online, Jason Sumner says.

The top half of our just-released Index of Online Excellence – a ranking of the 30 best online corporate communicators in the world – is exclusively European. The first American company to make an appearance is EMC, the software firm about to be swallowed by Dell, at 18th place. Six more American companies appear in the bottom half of the overall ranking.

There are a number of reasons why Europeans do better than Americans in the general scoring, one of which is the importance we place on ‘governance’ in the Index – how well all aspects of the online estate (main global site, country sites, social media and other channels) are managed from the centre as one entity. American company web presences, which are highly fragmented, are notably worse than Europeans in this regard.

Among the best at serving society

However, there are many specific things US companies do well online, and one of these is what we refer to as ‘serving society’, an area where they have traditionally fallen short of their European peers, but are improving. The ‘serving society’ Index metric assesses how well companies present a range of corporate governance, CSR and reputation-related material across their online estates. We answer a number of questions in the scoring, including: how clearly written is corporate governance material; does the site provide corporate social responsibility (CSR) performance data and is it of sufficient quality; does the company tackle controversies online and tell its sustainability story in an engaging way?

On these questions, American companies do much better than their overall ranking would suggest. When only the ‘serving society’ category is considered, US companies make up a third of the top 15 – Chevron, EMC, Ford, GE and Goldman Sachs, each of which score 26 out of a possible 32 points.

To put the performance of these five companies in a wider context, just four companies placed higher in the ‘serving society’ category in the Index – Eni at the top with 28 points, and BAT, Nestlé and SABMIller tied for second at 27 points (several other Europeans are on 26 points).

Table: The ‘serving society’ metric consists of three sub-metrics – corporate governance, serving the CSR profession and building a reputation for responsibility.

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Lessons from the best US companies

EMC and Ford are among the best in the world for their online data provision for CSR professionals, scoring 9 out of 10 in this Index sub-metric. EMC's simple and innovative approach to the presentation of its online sustainability report will help CSR professionals to skip directly to the topics that most interest them. The company sets meaningful targets, and reports data widely for a company in its sector. The site and report make good use of the fact EMC has a personable chief sustainability officer at the helm of both the company's sustainability progress and its reporting against that progress.

Videos are a standout element of the company's sustainability reporting. For example, linked from the sustainability report index page, visitors will find an introduction to the report by the chief sustainability officer and interviews with several employees about the results.

Ford has a formidable amount of data on its sustainability report microsite. Summary and detailed information is equally good, and all is attractively packaged. Data is nuanced. For example, global water data shows how much individual vehicles consume on average as well as total company impact. This is helpfully broken down by region.

The materiality analysis is as detailed as any we have seen, and the supply chain section is also strong. Although there is a great deal of detail for the expert, it is presented in an attractive way.

Polishing reputations online

Goldman Sachs, the US-based investment bank, is joint first in the sub-metric for building a reputation for responsibility, scoring 15 out of 16. This sub-category relates to how well the company is using the entire web estate to address controversies and promote its own responsibility initiatives, not just to CSR professionals but non-specialists too, especially ‘concerned consumers’.

Goldman has engaging, credible and focused video, text and photographic content addressing the bank's own community initiatives, as well as strong coordination of responsibility messages across the site as a whole. Community and business support initiatives are well-covered in the Stories of Progress section, where there is some excellent new material.

There are dedicated Twitter feeds for specific major CSR initiatives, and the YouTube channel has strong, clearly labelled CSR content focused on real people. 

Chevron, also scoring 15 out of 16, is using a wide range of social media channels to enhance its reputation: blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, social sharing, on-site voting, and social media monitoring.  Chevron also uses social media forcefully to defend the company against allegations. For example, it maintains a dedicated YouTube channel features an extensive selection of videos supporting Chevron's case in a long-running dispute over the company’s operations in Ecuador.

Good at the dull bits

The five US companies we’ve focussed on here also put in a solid performance in their ‘boring but important’ corporate governance sections (see David Bowen’s commentary on best practice in this area). GE, for example, makes good use of the web to present its governance content. The section makes a strong first impression, with a large-format photograph of the board welcoming visitors in a way that adds warmth and feels very appropriate to GE.

It also has unusually prominent options to contact the board of directors. The Board page has a contact box in the right column, with telephone, postal and email options. Italicised fine print makes clear that contacts will be fielded by the ombudsperson in the first instance and goes on to describe the process through which these contacts are collated and shared with the board.

Catching up

By and large US companies are still playing catch-up with Europeans on presenting sustainability online, a likely holdover from the fact that the modern conception of CSR began in the UK before spreading to Europe. American ‘sustainability’ has tended to be very different, less of a focus on numbers and facts and more about corporate philanthropy and employee volunteerism. But our Index results this year shows American thinking about online CSR communications might be changing.

A few prominent American multinationals appear to be leading the way, providing a comprehensive information service for CSR professionals, while also appealing to non-experts such as consumers and jobseekers who want to feel good about the companies from whom they buy and for which they want to work.

First published 27 April, 2016
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