NEW YORK: An increasing number of brand owners are employing sites like Facebook and Twitter as a major part of their corporate social responsibility programmes.

The Pepsi Refresh Project, which was officially launched by PepsiCo earlier this year, is one high-profile example of this growing trend in action.

It allows individuals and groups to submit plans for regenerating local communities in the US, with the most popular schemes, as voted for by web users, set to receive a combined $20m (€16.2m; £13.5m) in funding.

"We may be the first to do something like this, but hopefully, we're not the last," Ana Maria Irazabal, marketing director for Pepsi, said.

"We want people to be aware that every time you drink a Pepsi you are actually supporting the Pepsi Refresh Project and ideas that are going to move this country forward."

General Electric has also sought to transform both its business model and the public view about its operations via its Ecomagination platform.

However, Ed Downing, GE's manager of international advertising, argued that genuinely connecting with netizens on social media, and monitoring the results of this interaction, remained a challenge.

"There is still a big disconnect with big corporations like GE," he said. "We have a strategy somewhat in place and we know where we want to go, but we're still figuring out the middle part – the brand impact part."

The risks of falling short in this area have been witnessed by Nestlé, which was accused by Greenpeace of sourcing palm oil from a company with questionable sustainability credentials.

Its misjudged attempts to quell the critical response on new media platforms, such as its official Facebook profile, only served to heighten the negative word of mouth.

"Social media is all about the social and the engagement, not just about talking at your consumers," Evan Slater, the planning director at Ogilvy, said.

BP, which has faced widespread disapproval online following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, might have benefited from adopting a strategy that more "proactively embraced" social media, he added.

"The stakeholders could have done some social media outreach," said Slater.

"I can bet that the difference would have been huge. Instead of just recruiting the smartest people, make the entire world your problem solvers."

Douglas Rushkoff, author of the book Life Inc, suggested that organisations which match eco-friendly rhetoric with a solid performance in reality can easily avoid unleashing this kind of backlash.

"If a company is in the business of producing sustainable products, it doesn't have to spend money and resources on advertising its goodwill. A company's brand speaks for itself," he said.

Data sourced from AdWeek/Forbes; additional content by Warc staff