Based on the pitfalls shared in the past three posts, I think there's a few very simple guidelines that companies can follow to minimize the amount of perceived hypocrisy your social responsibility marketing can have on your brand.
1) Don't spend money on marketing social responsibility. Spend it on being socially responsible and being humble about how far you need to travel in your quest to lessen your impact on society.
This could be translated as, "Put your money where you mouth is, marketer." If you're spending millions of dollars on a corporate campaign to say how great you are, you're wasting money actually being great and signaling to your customers that there's a perception issue that needs to be shifted. There are better ways to evangelize your behavior than this.
Take a page out of the Patagonia playbook. Sure, they spent money on a nice Web site to highlight the true cost of creating and shipping one of their items to you. But they do something practically no one else does: they show you the good and the painful truth, and acknowledge they need to do better. How rare is that?
2) Use public relations and internal communications with your employees to broadcast social responsibility from your employees out, through their social networks and community activism. Forget the full-page ads.
Spreading the word through your employees is more valuable than any marketing will ever be, because it is spread by humans in conversation instead of one-way broadcast media. For topics as slippery as social responsibility, which always have their ounce of hypocrisy, these topics require a conversation to discuss all the nuances of what you're trying to accomplish. Give your employees the data and the support that they need to have a conversation, then step back and don't try to control the conversation. Let them speak their minds, for good and for bad.
3) Don't expect your customers to spend more for social responsibility as part of your marketing push. Unless your product is game-changing.
Going green, for some companies out there, may be seen as a smart business decision and also as a reason to charge more for their products. Your customers shouldn't have to bear the burden for how you change how your company operates and markets their services. If you amortize the costs of social responsibility into your current portfolio and let your customers know that they're getting a greener product for less cash, they'll find more perceived value in your offering and be more likely to participate.
Truly, it doesn't get any more complicated than this: Don't spend money to say you're changing how you do business to save the world. Just go out and save the world, and people will talk about it. Ignore the "greenvertising" race that's going on in the ad world, as companies jockey for position as the nicest, kindest, happiest little car manufacturer or producer of clothes. More action, fewer full-bleed ads!