Social media tools have been touted as being just for the young and frivolous. But multi-country events such as the Continental Day of Action Against Canadian Mega Resource Extraction suggest it is time for extractive industry thought leaders to join the conversation and embrace the risks and opportunities of engaging online networks.
If you’re not already following it, the Continental Day of Action Against Canadian Mega Resource Extraction taking place August 1, 2012 is going to be worth watching. We’ve seen lots of protests over the years, but this is the first time we’ve seen such a high degree of organization on the internet leading up to one.
It was only a matter of time. We’re increasingly seeing stakeholders and organizations use social media to either reach out to people or to try to manage their involvement with them. If the activities and dialogue in the Facebook group Continental Day of Action are anything to go by, such developments may be moving into the mainstream of public debate and action related to extractive projects.
Such networking tools are powerful because they are not limited to North America and Europe. Instead, as with the Continental Day of Action they reach across and potentially link continents and time zones. Have a look at the list of protest events being planned and the kind of self-organizing system that often facilitates the development of a feeling of community related to an issue.
Why should you care? It’s true that governments do not yet include online dialogue, social networking groups or opinions on blogs as part of formal stakeholder engagement processes. But we’re already seeing signs of that changing with groups like the US EPA having an active Twitter account and blog entitled “conversations”.
What makes it inevitable is that increasingly people are comfortable transitioning from online communities to face-to-face engagement. With previous media, that didn’t really happen in the same way. People read about issues that may have concerned them but didn’t have the tools to respond in a timely and easy way. Research over the last decade1 shows that people who participate directly in community affairs use the Internet to enhance, not replace, their connections, those who start off by taking action online will over time become involved in person.
There’s no question social media platforms are becoming more and more important and that savvy companies and organizations are thinking about how to harness the positive engagement these tools can promote while playing down the potentially chaotic risk they sometimes incur.
If you’re not already doing so, developing a policy and program for online communities as part of your social management system and understanding the ways people interact through social media can help create online spaces that respond to stakeholder needs. From a communications perspective, social media tools not only disseminate information but, more importantly, create opportunities for listening to stakeholders, constituents and clients. Listening is key. Social media tools can help you listen to commentary about projects and follow dialogue as it spreads through networks. Managed thoughtfully, social media can highlight project support or flag concerns that can otherwise develop into allegations or grievances.
Online interactions enhance the quality and breadth of information that is shared in face-to-face meetings and the ability to create ongoing interactions, unhindered by the need to coordinate meeting times and spaces, increases awareness of social capital in a network.
There’s no question the use of social media raises strong, real concerns about accountability, particularly since online communication is immediate and sometimes hard to reverse or counter, and online platforms can allow some degree of anonymity. Plus, there is always the risk of losing control. Leading social media thinkers like Bill Wasik warn of the sometimes unmanageable power unleashed by social media networking tools. Wasik’s piece last year, “#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts”, in Wired recounts stories of people forming flash crowds, called together at alarming speeds through a few viral messages sent via social networks accessed by cell phones. As Wasik says, the reach of viral messaging is unknown and its impact can be as sudden and devastating as a flash flood.
So it’s no surprise that many companies still feel such tools may leave them vulnerable and exposed, particularly to online dissenters. But the questions to ask in that case are, will such dissenters simply go away if you ignore them? Or, will they stand a good chance of continuing to mobilize opinion and what is the best way to manage that risk?
Just as with traditional stakeholder engagement, using social media for dialogue requires a plan, resources, objectives and ongoing monitoring and evaluation. Some things to think about doing include:
Implement in stages: start by testing the waters of different platforms and listen to active conversations.
Engage a known public: interact with a smaller group of people to test using these tools for transparent and timely participation with key stakeholders.
Build on these test experiences to design a dedicated strategy and resources that match your organization’s culture and resources.
Social media tools have been touted as being just for the young and frivolous. But multi-country events such as the Continental Day of Action Against Canadian Mega Resource Extraction suggest it is time for extractive industry thought leaders to join the conversation and embrace the risks and opportunities of engaging online networks. This new culture of communication may in fact assist with facilitating and strengthening relationships and create a space for the kind of balanced news that builds reputation and supports the kind of public acceptance that helps both companies and communities manage the complex change extractive projects generate.
1Wellman et al,. (2001). Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital? Social networks, participation, and community commitment. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(3), 436.