Our social communications have helped us… shine a light on our efforts right across the Group, building reputation and awareness. It also shows our Virgin people that their sustainability achievements are valued and inspires them to do more.

Madeleine Lewis, Storyteller at Virgin Unite spoke with us about how the Group's digital communications bring their social conscience to life and form a core part of the company's change strategy.


What do you see as the purpose of social media communications for your sustainability or CSR efforts, and has this changed since the channels have evolved?


The Virgin Group’s purpose is to ‘Change business for good’ and we have a dedicated content stream and associated social media activity dedicated to sustainability, environmental and social issues, driven by our non-profit foundation, Virgin Unite. We use this activity to both share stories about how the Group is delivering on our purpose, but also to use our global reach and influence to share stories about innovative people and organisations who are leading the way to a better future. We believe that no one organisation can achieve significant change alone, and we know that storytelling plays a very important role in change, both internally and externally, so we see our social communications as a key part of our change strategy.


What benefits have you seen from these channels for your sustainability or CSR efforts?


Virgin has always had a social conscience in its DNA. Richard's very first business was Student Magazine, a publication created to protest the Vietnam War and highlight social issues affecting young people. Our social communications have helped us to bring that to life and shine a light on our efforts right across the Group, building reputation and awareness, as well as other individuals and organisations leading the way. It also shows our Virgin people that their sustainability achievements are valued and inspires them to do more. It’s also a great way for us to engage with new and existing partners, helping them to achieve their own goals. And of course, our content is also a great source of new ideas and contacts that we can go on to collaborate with.


What do you think is key to your success and influence in using social media to communicate on sustainability?


Quantity, quality and tone of voice – our social media is primarily driven by content on Virgin.com. We publish at least two stories every day, and we strive to bring important, often complex, issues to our audiences with Virgin’s unique style and approach.

  • Authenticity – we stay true to Virgin’s culture and are honest about our own efforts. Virgin isn’t perfect on sustainability, but are on a journey and happy to share it as we learn and change. We genuinely care about this stuff, and we hope that shines through.
  • Openness – we don’t just use our platform to talk about our own activities; we share it with innovative people and organisations and that makes for a much more interesting experience for our audience. We work with some incredible partners, from Ashoka to Sustainia to the B Team, from The Elders to the Carbon War Room to the Ocean Elders.
  • Network – we are lucky to have one of the biggest influencers in the world on our team (Richard Branson!) but we also partner with many other influential voices who help us share our stories widely.


What are some of the challenges you’ve found from using social media to communicate on sustainability?


Getting the balance right when communicating complex topics. We do publish stories that are quite complex but we strive to translate them into plain English and ensure they’re relevant and compelling. This isn’t always easy, as our audience is so broad and ranges from experts to those just becoming interested in sustainability.

Communicating the value of sustainability communications to others in the organisation. Even in 2015, sustainability can still be seen as something that CSR departments do that is unrelated to the core business. At Virgin, we know that thinking sustainably is critical to the future of our business and we’re on a journey to embed that right across the Group. 


Can you share some background on the social media channels that you use to communicate on sustainability? E.g. How long have they been going? Who has responsibility, contributes, inputs?


We started our social channels more than five years ago and have been constantly learning more, evolving our strategy and developing more content to support our social activity. We began by focusing on Twitter and Facebook and are now also very active on LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram and more emerging platforms – with all social activity driving people back to more in-depth content on Virgin.com. Richard, Virgin and Virgin Unite's social channels all share sustainability content on a regular basis, and responsibility is shared across the content team at Virgin Management. We also invite regular input from the wider Group, our partners and network – it isn't a closed shop, more a place to encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration.


Who do you see as your primary audiences – and how do they differ across different channels?


Our audience is pretty broad, and includes: people working in both business and the non-profit space, entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs, policymakers, the general public and the Virgin Group. As you would expect, our LinkedIn audience tends to respond well to sustainability and business issues, whereas our people stories and photos/film do very well on Facebook. However, the differences aren’t as marked as some imagine – a good story will perform well across all platforms.


How does your social media approach to sustainability communications differ from your corporate, brand or product communications?


We try to align these approaches as much as possible, bringing sustainability front and centre of our activity. Virgin is such a diverse organisation that at one moment we can be talking about a new Hotels company, the next about a climate change report, the next about a satellite launch. Keeping the tone of voice and style of messaging consistent is crucial to coming across as authentic and approachable on all topics.


Finally, what are the top practical considerations you’d advise for other organisations to put in place in order to build an effective social media presence for sustainability?


  • Invest. Good social communications requires the right people, time and budget.
  • Engage the whole organisation. Make the most of the talented experienced people across the organisation for ideas and content creation. And remember that some of the issues carry reputational risk, so engage with experts in your wider team or network so that you have a sounding board when you need it.
  • Don’t be shy to be creative with how you communicate the issues. For a long time, sustainability communications has meant dry reports, academic papers and niche discussions. Yet these issues are some of the most interesting and important of our times. Be bold, do things differently!
  • Open up your platform(s) to voices outside your organisation. It will help you create a much more interesting experience, connect you to new audiences, and could be a great source of new collaborations! 
  • Ask questions; don't just tell people what you think, or what they already know. Social media shouldn't be a one-way conversation.