S.O.S. - Send Our Stuff?

You wouldn't believe how these companies are messing up on social media

In the past decade we have witnessed an enormous growth in the use of social media. Also organisations have started using social media as part of their marketing, service or corporate communications, or for their PR.

Many scholars, gurus and other visionaries have declared social media as the new revolution in stakeholder relations and ways of doing business. Unspecific marketing campaigns are no longer necessary, because organisations can link up with their stakeholders on Facebook, and their followers on Twitter and YouTube.

In our study we wanted to examine how corporate social responsibility issues are being discussed online by organisations with their stakeholders. Literature in public relations, corporate communication and stakeholder management promotes dialogue as a form of symmetrical communication that contribute to involving stakeholders into organisational matters. We wanted to investigate whether dialogue is also promoted when companies present their CSR initiatives on social media and whether dialogue actually takes place with their stakeholders in the online environment.

To explore this, we selected 10 companies that have a highly-ranked reputation. Our idea was that if an organisation had a high reputation, it is probably good in stakeholder dialogue and stakeholder engagement. Also, we wanted companies from different industries. The complete list of companies included in our study is:

The companies in our study

We checked the main, corporate Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts of all these companies. Firstly, the accounts themselves give information about their popularity. All organisations have the largest number of stakeholders on Facebook - except for L’Oreal and Novartis who have more Twitter followers - and BMW, which has more YouTube followers. Figure 1 is an overview of the amount of followers on these three social media:

Figure 1: The amount of followers, friends on the three social media in 1000s. Nestle, Lufthansa and Shell have more than 1,000,000 friends on Facebook.

Twitter accounts also show which other accounts that particular account is following back. Figure 2 shows the number of accounts that these organisations are following back (please note that in Figure 1 these are presented in 1000s, in Figure 2 it is the actual number).

Figure 2: The amount of accounts the organisation is following. These are not in 1000s. L’Oreal, Deutsche Bank and Accenture are following more than 250 accounts.

The first impression of the Twitter accounts of these companies is remarkable. These companies have on average more than 55,000 followers on Twitter, but do not follow these stakeholders back (on average less than 1% of the followers). A closer inspection shows that the general account of an organisation is only interested in other accounts of that same organisation. So, for instance, BMW’s general account listed that they follow BMW Austria, BMW UK, and so on. So the low amount of following back is even more peculiar.

In four months during 2012 and 2013 we analysed all Facebook, Twitter and YouTube postings of these companies, resulting in a total of 3396 posts (590 on Facebook, 2182 Tweets and 624 YouTube videos).

  • On average a post by BMW is shared, liked, retweeted or favourited more than 82,000 times.
  • For Shell this is 28,000 and for Lufthansa 3,788.
  • The posts of other companies are shared at least 100 times, with the exception of L’Oreal, which posts more than it receives in likes, retweets, shares or favourites.  

Of all the posts of these companies,

  • 9 per cent are CSR related, with Novartis (66 per cent) and Nestle (22.9 per cent) ranking highest here, and Deutsche Bank (2.9 per cent), Accenture (3,2 per cent) and Shell (4.4 per cent) lowest.
  • Stakeholder engagement was the biggest subject for BMW (51.7 per cent) and for Shell (21.7per cent), in as much as these posts were shared, liked, retweeted the most.
  • On the other hand, the companies did not fully grasp the possibilities for engagement. On average, only 0.02 per cent of the companies indicated on social media that they appreciated the share, retweet, and so on. For CSR-related posts, the opportunities to engage were even lower (less than 0.01 per cent).

These results seem strange. Organisations actively post on social media, but when stakeholders try to engage with the organisations, they do not participate in the discussions generated by their own posts. From these results it seems that social media is seen by the organisations as just another marketing channel for sending out messages.

Because of this, we contacted the companies and asked for their social media strategy and to what extent CSR communication was part of that strategy. Five out of the 10 organisations did (we promised anonymous responses, so we are not revealing which organisations talked to us). The others didn’t want to be interviewed.

  • The organisations indicated that they are still struggling to get a good online digital strategy up and running – for instance on how to cope with negative posts.
  • Furthermore the organisations indicated that it is hard for them to manage all the accounts and get into interaction with stakeholders.
  • Some of them mentioned the enormous workload involved in keeping up with what is being said online; other mentioned the complexity of dialogue.

Our second study also shows that digital strategies have not been fully deployed: it seems that organisations are setting up a large amount of accounts

  • without having a future-proof strategy
  • without thinking about how these different accounts should cooperate
  • and without a consistent way of presenting the company to stakeholders

The orchestration of all forms of communication, a central tenet in the definition of corporate communication, seems not to be practiced in the digital age or applied on social media

Applying social media and encouraging dialogue

Social media enriches communities with the opportunities to share, comment and upload information. Social media can offer organisations ways to further stakeholder engagement and increase their fan base. Organisations have to step ahead and apply basic rules of transparency, but also have to listen more closely to stakeholders.

For their part, stakeholders use social media to gain knowledge about the company and the parent behind the brand. Being a stakeholder is voluntary: they can leave at any moment. For organisations it seems to be important to foster stakeholder relations and increase their number. Social media can be helpful in this, since it offers opportunities for targeted information and corporate stories. Social media is suitable for two-way communication and stakeholder involvement. But to create a sustainable strategy, it is necessary to be transparent, as well as open to critique and to negative sentiment. These are major trends for organisations and businesses, even outside of digital forms of communication. The findings from our study suggest that there is a long way to go for organisations to be truly social and to use social media to enhance stakeholder engagement.

You can follow Wim Elving on Twitter at @WimElv

Image: Thinkstock

Wim J.L. Elving

Wim J.L. Elving is assistant professor in corporate communication at the University of Amsterdam and member of the Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR). He is also special visiting professor at IE University, Madrid, Spain. He was editor in chief of Corporate Communications, an international journal, for 10 years.

Chiara Valentini

Chiara Valentini is professor of corporate communication at Jyvaskyla University School of Business and Economics. She has also worked for and consulted organisations and public institutions of several countries, including the Italian Representation of the European Commission in Rome and the European Movement International Secretariat in Brussels.