Written by Christopher Toyberg-Frandzen
The hesitance of utilizing Social Media to engage in Stakeholder Communication
Social media was created with the intention of connecting people through dialogue and engagement (Hanna et al. 2011). It is no secret that a great deal of communication takes place through these online social networks; a video is uploaded to YouTube approximately every twenty minutes or so and over 600 posts are tweeted every second (Aaker and Smith, 2010).
Organizations and businesses are actively participating in these information channels and are becoming increasingly involved in the communication process. This takes form in catchy YouTube videos (e.g. “Nike: Dare to be Brazilian” with over 13 million views), blog posts, updated Facebook statuses, picture posts on Pinterest and Instagram and in Twitter campaigns - all in an attempt to communicate their message to their audience.
Even though companies attempt to utilize these different Social media platforms, they seem to have a difficult time abandoning the customary one-way communication approach (Hanna et al. 2011). Companies do not seem to encourage the active exchange of views between stakeholders and the business. The basic principals of dialogue are not being adhered to, despite stakeholder expectations and technology being easily accessible (Jones et al. 2011). So the purpose of this paper is to answer the following question:
“How can companies go about initiating stakeholder dialogue on social media?”
A Common Problem
Much has been written about the seemingly endless possibilities that Social Media allows for companies to engage in stakeholder communication (Fieseler, Fleck and Meckel, 2010).
Concerned citizens, interested organizations and dedicated consumers increasingly want to know more about aspects such as production methods, product ranges, health and safety requirements, and work ethics (Fieseler, Fleck and Meckel, 2010). However, many companies adhere to the customary methods of informing the world about these aspects through written reports, advertisements, conferences and annual reports. The audience is presented with the company's own version of events. This form of communication is strictly one-way, even if it takes place online and through Social media Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
This single flow of communication means that the audience is not invited to start a dialogue and debate about the given topic and can result in drastic measures taken by stakeholders in order to raise awareness. Social media grants organizations and stakeholders the freedom and flexibility to communicate directly with each other in real-time. Users can directly communicate with businesses (without major financial costs) and these actions can potentially threaten corporate reputation and damage legitimacy for companies.
A good example of this can be seen through Greenpeace’s creative video publication on YouTube against the cooperation between Shell and Lego that went viral with nearly 7 million views (see video). Greenpeace criticized their focus on profits rather than the environmental impact they had on the arctic. The result of which, was that Lego was under enormous public pressure and, in conclusion, did not renew their contract with Shell (The Guardian, 2014).
Companies are expected to share and explain the activities that take place out of the lime light because if they try to hide anything they risk gaining involuntary exposure.
What Dialogue Can Do
The character traits of Social media are constantly developing and changing at an incredible rate and the present nature of it is greatly different than just a few years ago (Eisenberg et al. 2014). These changes are taking place right now and the results are immediate. So much so that new research on the topic is rendered useless at a phenomenal rate.
Constant development within social technologies provide businesses and stakeholders a chance to mingle with each other. It allows the audience to challenge the way a company sees itself. The stakeholders can help create a debate and provide input about a given report/procedure/product (i.e. Ethical reports, product ranges) - they can help correct them and companies can gain inspiration through the stakeholders' involvement in the same cause.
This type of dialogue represents both voluntary and involuntary forms of communication, where companies have either established a strategy to get different audiences to engage in and discuss a given topic, or where the audience, by themselves, engage and attract attention on a subject (Greenpeace example).
Through the active engagement in dialogue with stakeholders, companies can reach a larger audience, increase brand awareness, encourage mutual responses and, ultimately, gain a bigger customer base (Jones et al. 2011).
Much like the person-to-person interactions experienced in the offline world, starting a dialogue is a good way to have a meaningful conversation on social media (Eisenberg et al. 2014). In other words, hiding in the shadows and dark corners of the cyber world, waiting for stakeholders to strike conversation, doesn’t usually lead to insightful interactions.
Just like in the real world, some conversations can be more meaningful than others. The objective of the dialogue should not be to have a chit-chat for the sake of conversation, but rather, to dig deep and engage in a heartfelt and honest exchange.
To do this, it helps if companies spend more time listening than talking (Jones et al. 2011). The transparency and openness that a lot of social media platforms offer, allow businesses to observe the conversations taking place between their stakeholders. By utilizing this aspect, it generates opportunities for a company to join the conversation and become a value adding participant to a conversation that is relevant to the business’ brand.
Additionally, company emphasis is usually placed on increasing their audience count and do not take into consideration the benefits of actively following their stakeholders. By doing so, it serves as a natural introduction when communicating but also allows companies to better listen to the conversations that stakeholders are engaging in on different social media platforms (Jones et al. 2011).
There is a time and a place. Not all forums invite the injection of a company’s presence and could be construed as obtrusive. It, therefore, becomes essential to understand where and stakeholders discuss given topics, so as to better determine when and where relevant conversations are taking place and where the company’s presence is welcome. Finding appropriate forums and channels to engage stakeholders in can prove to be useful for determining relevant trends and hot topics that can impact the company (Jones et al. 2011).
The problem a lot of companies have with actively engaging in stakeholder communication (through social media) is the perceived lack of time (Mankins et al. 2014). It is a time consuming activity that needs to be added on top of an already demanding work schedule as it requires constant publications, responses to stakeholder input and other interactions. It, therefore, becomes vital to set manageable goals for any social media strategy that deals with stakeholder communication. This could be as simplistic as setting a given number of daily conversations to start with specific stakeholders and then adding to it as it evolves.
It is the personal and transparent dialogue, the digital “closeness”, the confidence established between the company and stakeholder, joint ownership and loyalty, that lies in wait for any company that opens up to sincere dialogue on the different social media platforms. By taking the aspects discussed in this paper into consideration, it should become apparent that reciprocated dialogue should be goal when communicating to stakeholders.
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