Jonathan Morris, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR
As more of the world moves online, stakeholder engagement via social media gives companies unique opportunities to speak directly to groups with whom contact previously would have been difficult, if not impossible. For example, Marks and Spencer uses smartphone applications to reach factory employees working for subcontractors. This broad and direct contact—rather than the previously limited contact provided through third-party audits—allows the company to address stakeholder questions or concerns instantly.
Although some companies are pushing the envelope, many sustainability professionals often don’t know where to begin. They try to incorporate social media into stakeholder engagement but end up with platforms that look more like slick advertising than stakeholder dialogue.
This shouldn’t be the case. Sustainability professionals are highly qualified for this task precisely because the work they do is inherently social. They focus on building relationships, working with communities, and sharing sometimes-controversial content with the public, such as discussions around corporate corruption or bribery. So how can companies channel these skillsets to engage more effectively in the social space?
During a recent breakfast event in our BSR Paris office, “Stakeholders: Rethink, Innovate, and Improve the Impact of Engagement Processes,” Angela de Santiago, CEO and founder of the socially conscious media agency Youphil, shared insights to answer this question. Paraphrasing de Santiago, there are five criteria to successfully managing social media for stakeholder engagement. Companies should:
1. Know the dialogue mechanism.
Before diving in the deep end, companies should get hands-on with both established and nascent social media platforms, from Facebook to Vine. They should participate as users and see how interactions happen—learning the “language” of intended platforms—before trying to manage questions posed to them.
2. Accept that they cannot hide.
Whether they have chosen to engage or not, companies are already present on social media. Chalk it up to the proliferation of smartphones and connectivity, but services like Yelp or GoodGuide now make it easier than ever for individuals to rate the efforts of companies. Having a presence in the social space is no longer a choice; the only choice is whether or not that presence is managed.
3. Be transparent and honest.
When companies do make their entry into social media, they must be confident and true to their image. Speaking honestly with stakeholders will help spur honest feedback in return. A recent study by the Brunswick Group shows that trust and mutual respect are two of the most important factors for creating a successful stakeholder engagement program.
4. Get ready to experiment.
Social media is a playground for new business models. Companies should use this world as a means to test new engagement methods—and persevere in their attempts. Take the example of French supermarket Auchan, which prints QR codes on receipts, allowing customers to pose questions or comments directly to the product-development teams from their smartphones.
5. Apply editorial rigor
Finally, social media may seem less formal than traditional media platforms, but companies should apply the same rigor they use in everyday communications. They should have a process to survey stakeholders and collect information, to analyze and verify these inputs, and to publish, share, and moderate the results.