Last week I was invited to participate in two great panels about social media and social change at Digital Hollywood with some real luminaries of the social media space including Debbie Levin, the head of EMA (Environmental Media Association), the CEO of CauseCast Brian Sirgutz, Juan Devis from KCET — an amazing interactive public radio network — and the head of Transmedia Entertainment at Lionsgate and more cool folks. 

The subject of the first panel was on brand advocacy — how the Internet and social media can broadcast authentic messages about a company's environmentally friendly practices. I decided to shake up the discussion a bit by talking about the dangers corporations face if they aren't authentic online. 

In my talk called Environmentalism 2.0, I cover the ways in which the Internet is empowering social change — not just via readily available content (through blogs, vlogs and tweets) but also through instigating personal action in three main categories — personal lifestyle changes, micro-philanthropy and crowd influence.

In tracking how corporations are using social media to establish their brand integrity, I've noticed they mostly stick with the first two call-to-action types. Their goal is to enhance their brand value by either associating with educational "go green" campaigns like this one by Jet Blue (a campaign seems to have missed the irony of a company that profits by burning fossil fuels preaching to people that they should drive less). Are they really the most qualified to tell me how to be green?

The Jet Blue campaign is not really brand-damaging, just kind of lame in its green pretense. Many companies have avoided this trap by letting the user choose which causes they like via micro-charity campaigns. 

But if I were a corporation, I would be most concerned and focused on the third category —crowd influence. Because the crowd, like a herd of bison, can either be gentle or totally destructive. And while any individual bison may not be that bright, the herd as a collective is a very intelligent force.

One recent example of a company getting it from the "crowd police" is CHASE bank. CHASE ran a social media campaign called Chase Community Giving. By many measures it was successful, garnering almost 2 million fans on Facebook who voted to give away $5M of Chase's money to charity, with a particularly strong focus on children and they environment.

But the problem for CHASE is that the Internet forces transparency. Right at the same time, RAN launched a campaign against CHASE for being the primary funder of mountaintop removal.

They used the Facebook application to subvert the imagery of the blue hand. In addition, controversy erupted over falsified voters, kicking off a lengthy series of blogs, video blogs then a massive Mother Jones expose, followed by Mountains Rule! — a social campaign that I helped put together which awarded badges for those who cancelled their CHASE accounts. This was covered by several major journalists including Marc Gunther of Fortune Magazine.

In the end, the Internet record speaks for itself. It provides an uncomfortable reminder of just how inauthentic the CHASE brand is, juxtaposing the do-gooder image CHASE was going for against the more than 200,000 Google entries that reference CHASE bank in relationship to the "worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history." And the juxtaposition will remain evident online for a long time. It's written in the digital sky, so to speak.

The big take-away for the public is something CHASE does not want anyone to know: CHASE has made upwards of $500 billion blowing up mountains, polluting water supplies, destroying communities, while sending cheap coal to China.

Spending 1/1000th of 1 percent of their spoils on a campaign that paints them as socially and environmentally concerned corporate citizens will ultimately serve to expose the corporation for greenwasing (or goodwashing) which profoundly hurts the brand. So a cautionary tale ... corporations have to start changing from the inside out, rather than shellacking an ugly truth with $5,000,000 worth of goody-goody points.

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Corporations, the crowd police are watching you
In my talk last week, I sent out a warning -- big corporations need to be very, very careful about greenwashing. The crowd is watching.