Research shows that most businesses are jumping on the social media bandwagon. But many are not using social media effectively or wisely, exposing themselves to criticism and missing opportunities. Here, Jim Macnamara outlines three key steps for success online.
Few businesses today are not using social media. There was a time when many companies banned use of social media at work based on a fear of wasted employee time and potential security breaches. But now most have realised that social media are not only a 21st century media revolution for Generation Y and Millennials, but also part of a wide-ranging social and cultural revolution that requires changing business practices in marketing, customer relations, employee communication, staff recruitment, and public relations.
In 2013, McKinsey reported that 83% of companies globally used at least one social media technology, with 53% using social networks, 43% publishing blogs, 41% using video sharing, 26% using wikis and 25% using microblogging (McKinsey, 2013). The percentage using social networks and microblogging sites such as Twitter and Tumblr is now likely to be much higher, given the massive growth in these platforms. Social media statistics portal, Statista (2015) reports that 97% of US businesses were using social media in 2015, mainly for marketing and promotion of products and services.
In Europe, the social media adoption rate in business is lower according to Eurostat, with just under 40% of EU businesses using social media, but European businesses reportedly use social media for a wider range of purposes. For instance, Eurostat reports that 52% of enterprises using social media reported using these channels “to obtain customer opinions or reviews, or to answer their questions, implying an effort to improve customer service”. This suggests that many European business are on the right track with social media, recognising their two-way communication capability.
Since the early 2000s when social media began to proliferate, academics and leading communication professionals have pointed out that the defining characteristics of social media are that they are open, two-way channels that facilitate dialogue, conversations, collaboration, and user-generated content as well as top-down broadcast information by elite organisations such as governments and corporations.
As Dutch professor of media studies José Van Dijck says: “The very word ‘social’ associated with media implies that platforms are user centred and that they facilitate communal activities” (2013, p. 11). In Corporate Communication: A Guide to Theory and Practice, Joep Cornelissen states that social media “create new ways of reaching and engaging with stakeholders” (2011, p.154).
However, a number of research studies show that many businesses are anti-social when it comes to use of social media. In a US study of the use of social media by Fortune 50 companies, Tina McCorkindale reported that “most companies in the Fortune 50 were taking advantage of the opportunities of Facebook, but were not utilizing this medium to its fullest extent” (2010, p. 12). A longitudinal study of social media use by PR practitioners from 2006 to 2012 by Don Wright and Michelle Hinson in the US reported a continuing focus on one-way dissemination of messages (Wright & Hinson, 2012, p. 1). Similarly, a 2012 study of private and public sector organisations in four European countries and four Asia Pacific countries found that most organisations use social media for distributing organisational messages and try to control the platforms using methods such as turning off comments and even deleting critical or negative comments (Macnamara & Zerfass, 2012).
Is this a result of the newness of these media and a lag in businesses getting used to them? It seems not, because even more recently Michael Kent reported: “If we look at the use of social media by most large corporations, we see that the communication tools that were invented for ‘sociality’ are typically used in a one-way fashion to push messages out to publics” (2013, p. 342).
Even more recently, a two-year, three-continent study of how organisations communicate with their stakeholders and publics such as customers, employees, and local communities conducted by this author found that in 36 case studies examined, 80% of their communication resources, budget, and time was devoted to disseminating the organisation’s messages. In short, speaking. In some cases, up to 95% of the communication investment of organisations was spent on speaking through various forms of strategic communication. The Organizational Listening Project found that organisations devote little resources, technologies, or time to listening, and concluded that both public and private sector organisations listen “poorly, sporadically, and sometimes not at all” (Macnamara, 2016).
Meanwhile, despite increasing expenditure on communication by business, trust in business has declined to new lows according to the Edelman Trust Barometer (Edelman, 2015). These and other research studies suggest three key steps that businesses need to take to adapt to the social media world and re-socialise themselves in contemporary societies.
1. Shift from broadcasting to dialogue and engagement
The first important and necessary step for businesses to reap the benefits of social media is abandoning the broadcasting mode of public communication that characterised the 20th century world of mass media (i.e., press, radio, and television). Too much business and corporate communication is blah, blah, blah! Social media communication is about conversations, dialogue, and collaboration. Importantly, businesses need to recognise that conversations about their business, products, services, and issues that concern them are happening online with or without them. Their choice is whether to join the conversation or not. Most businesses, marketers in particular, profess to want engagement, but few people will engage when faced with a one-way diatribe of advertising, promotion, and corporate PR. There is a need for a major restructuring and transformation of strategic business and corporate communication away from broadcasting to two-way dialogue and engagement.
2. Listen, not just talk
The shift from the broadcast model of communication to dialogue, conversations, engagement, and collaboration necessitates a second major step. Organisations including businesses need to listen. The Organizational Listening Project found that the communication infrastructure of organisations such as corporations and government bodies is predominantly based on an ‘architecture of speaking’. Often they invest millions of Euros or dollars in technologies, resources, systems, skills, and resources for speaking. The Organizational Listening Project concluded that this needs to be balanced by an ‘architecture of listening’ and argued that there is much to be gained from improved listening to stakeholders and publics. In Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication (Peter Lang, New York, 2016), correlations are shown between organisational listening and increased trust, customer loyalty, staff retention, improved reputation, and reduced complaints, disputes, and crises (Macnamara, 2016).
3. Apply governance instead of control
Engaging openly in social media does not mean exposing a business to unreasonable risk. Most authors recognise that social media pose risks for organisations including businesses, such as public criticism of their products, services, environmental performance, or business practices, poor reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor, and inappropriate comments made by employees that can cause embarrassment and potential reputational damage. But the answer is not attempts at control. Social media comprise a tsunami that cannot be controlled by media ‘gatekeepers’ (e.g., editors), regulators, or even corporate lawyers. On the internet content travels across jurisdictions, often under the veil of anonymity and, even if some sources are blocked, others spring up in their place like a many-headed Hydra.
Business and management consultancy firms warn against strict controls and attempts to close down social media use internally in organisations. For instance, a report published by KPMG (2011) titled Social Media: The Voyage of Discovery for Business recommends that organisations should “guide employee use, rather than developing extensive formal rules that restrict it” (p.6). Respondents in the KPMG study stated that “clamping down was likely to result in more, rather than less, misuse of social media”. In its key conclusions, the study stated: “Very few employees want to do the wrong thing – if they do, there are probably deeper cultural issues in play” (p.1).
Futile and counter-productive attempts at control should be replaced by governance. In the case of social media, this includes:
Clear policies and guidelines for employees on social media use. These should be written in simple language and be encouraging and positive rather than threatening legalese;
Training of employees engaging in social media on behalf of the organisation. Companies such as Dell Computer have been very successful in reducing risk and creating brand ambassadors through initiatives such as the Social Media and Communities University (SMaC U) which trains its staff to effectively represent the company online;
Monitoring of social media by the organisation so that it is immediately aware of any content requiring address.
Studies in Europe and elsewhere have found that most organisations do not have the above governance and enablers in place as yet. A study by Ansgar Zerfass and colleagues from the University of Leipzig reported that “governance structures for social media are still underdeveloped and can be seen to be missing from most communication departments across Europe” (Zerfass, Fink, & Linke, 2011, p. 91). This has been confirmed since in the study by Macnamara and Zerfass (2012 and in the European Communication Monitor, an annual study of more than 2,000 communication practitioners across Europe.
Businesses today are well aware of the reach and influence of social media, and many have jumped on the social media bandwagon. But it is proving more like a rollercoaster for some, with ups and just as many downs. Research shows three key steps that will help businesses join the 21st century media revolution in a way that minimises risks and maximises the benefits through (1) a dialogic approach rather than broadcasting; (2) listening as well as speaking; and (3) encouraging social media engagement within a framework of governance rather than a climate of control.
About the Author
Jim Macnamara is Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economic and Political Science, Media and Communications Department in 2016. He joined UTS in 2007 after a 30-year professional career spanning journalism, corporate and marketing communication, and media research. He is the author of 16 books including The 21st Century Media (R)evolution: Emergent Communication Practices (Peter Lang, New York, 2014) and Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication (Peter Lang, New York, 2016).
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