"Almost 80 percent of companies are either using or planning to use social media, but only 12 percent feel that they are using them effectively."
By Danna Pfahl, VP, Stakeholder Engagement, Future 500
NGOs and corporations often don’t see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, and so the opportunity for the two parties to publicly engage in civil discourse is rare, especially on social media, where strongly charged sentiments often prevail.
While it is tempting for corporations to bury their head in the sand, delete negative comments, and avoid contact with adversarial stakeholders, such actions have consistently proven to increase risk, not deter it. On June 18th, CSRwire partnered with Triple Pundit to host a live Twitter chat with Nestlé Waters North America to show how one of the biggest bottled water companies is creating “shared value."
The online discussion, which attracted its share of critics and advocates, covered prepared questions in the beginning, leaving roughly half an hour for questions and feedback from the audience. The hashtag #SharedValue reached more than 560,000 Twitter accounts and was included in over 1,000 tweets between June 11-18th.
Engaging with Critics:
But it's not just about the numbers. The audience acknowledged Nestlé Waters’ progress, but also shared differing perspectives.
Some tweeters pointed out that clean tap water is not available everywhere, while others noted that places where most bottled water is sold tend to also have clean drinking water from the tap and water fountains available.
Besides the availability and conservation of water, Nestlé Waters also brought up the importance of collaboration “across industry, government, municipalities, NGOs and nonprofits.” Other topics included:
At the end of the hour, it was appreciable to observe that rather than ignoring critical comments or becoming defensive, the company used the feedback to engage in a meaningful conversation and clearly explain the brand’s approach.
Since there wasn’t enough time to answer all the individual questions during the chat – over 50 – Heidi Paul, EVP, Corporate Affairs, responded to them in a blog series on Talkback, thus closing the loop on the many issues that came up during the dialogue.
Value of Stakeholder Engagement Via Twitter
So why did the company choose to use an open forum like Twitter to invite and answer its boldest critics?
Because, Twitter chats are a great way to have an organized conversation with a company’s most emboldened stakeholders. The company can present a new idea or strategy, develop its community network, and address issues of concern early on. Other key benefits include:
- Feedback loop in real time: Understanding concerns now, not tomorrow, will keep the company ahead of the curve. Twitter uniquely fills this need.
- Humanize the company: Authentic and transparent responses to stakeholders shows your human face. Follow-up from specific staffers can take it to the next level.
- Decrease conflict: The company can diffuse tension by quickly, directly, and genuinely engaging those campaigning against them.
- Make friends before you need them: Often companies look for allies after they are attacked, which corners them into a reactive (rather than proactive) strategy. Early contact with activist groups and others can build trust before conflicts arise.
- Engage internal stakeholders
An Emerging Tool?
According to a recent study by Harvard Business Review, almost 80 percent of companies are either using or planning to use social media, but only 12 percent feel that they are using them effectively.
A look at the participants in CSRwire's recent chats – Nestle Waters, ARAMARK, Campbell Soup, Mars, Unilever, Walmart – offers a glimpse of an emerging list of commendable leaders in the area. They understand that social media is an exciting way to reach out to stakeholders and forge new, mutually beneficial relationships and have found that social media helps them listen to the concerns of their clients, customers and communities.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of companies are still hesitant to get serious about social media or thinks it’s a “passing fad.” "At the C-Suite level, they don't want to talk about social media because they don't understand it," as one executive admitted in the Harvard study.
While companies' wariness about engaging on social media platforms due to the perceived risks associated is understandable, they – especially consumer facing brands – must accept the reality: they can’t control attacks on their brand anymore. The companies that understand this fact and adapt will set themselves apart from their competitors and be more successful as conflicts arise. It is definitely better for a company to be involved in the conversation, than to let it happen unmonitored and unanswered.
You may not win everyone over in the process, but you will be respected for being transparent and tackling difficult issues.
Companies like Unilever, Nestlé Waters and Walmart have begun to forge shared solutions to the challenges that face not only the public, but also private corporations in the 21st century. There will always be criticism of the private sector, but companies must use social media as an opportunity to help communicate more directly. Show that its values align with those of many different stakeholders, even those with whom it may not agree.
About the Author:
Danna Pfahl is the VP of Stakeholder Engagement, supporting the development of strategic stakeholder relationships and core programmatic work at Future 500. She has a background in environmental policy and coalition building, working with Oxfam America, Global Exchange, Amnesty International and a handful of SF-based political consulting firms on environmental and social issues.
After working at the grassroots level, Pfahl wanted to explore ways to work within corporations in order to understand the hurdles and areas of potential alignment with the activist community. She currently works directly with some of the largest utilities and consumer brands in the country to advance market based approaches to environmental problems.