It’s all too easy to add to the noise of social media, but with a bit of care you can be noticed above the din, says Peter Knight

Stakeholder engagement – the term – seems so yesteryear, so MySpace.

But the need remains as pressing as ever for companies to engage with those who influence their fortunes. If anything, it is becoming more important, as competition increases and reputations are made or ruined in a flash by social media campaigns.

So how can we lead stakeholder engagement out of the old-school era and into that of social media?

“Engagement”, like conversation, implies a two-way exchange: if not necessarily a meeting of minds, then certainly a swapping of ideas and opinions, listening and talking. And like a conversation, there’s a required social contract to show some respect to those with whom we are conversing.

“Stakeholder engagement” may have lost its currency, but so has “conversation” in cyberspace. The term now merely describes the torrent of words and a flood of pictures, where the only way to make any sense of the babble is to use very large computers to interpret the flow. The results merely offer marketers and politicians some hint of the popular mood and not the detailed feedback derived from genuine engagement.

Given this white noise, the future must lie in using information technologies to hold real exchanges and reclaim the true meaning of having conversation. Only by contributing to a better world with thoughts, ideas and products will companies have a meaningful dialogue and in the process learn what others are thinking about them. The quality of content is really important, and mostly lacking.

Perhaps we should reject the notion, perpetrated by the Global Reporting Initiative, that stakeholder engagement is an activity that can be counted, like carbon emissions, and reported in neat paragraphs. We should abandon this dated thinking and integrate engagement into the way we interact with our societies every day. Or, to use the cliché, make it part of our everyday conversation. That would mean integrating stakeholder engagement into our digital communications strategy.

Lead with content

Current thinking argues for a content-led strategy to converse in cyberspace. This has three elements.

Content. Develop good information to share with the world. This includes data, ideas, visual interpretations and information that will help others, and is usually launched on a blog. In sustainability terms, your content is your contribution to sustainable development – making the world a better place. Sharing a set of standards, such as those on sustainable agriculture donated by Unilever, is an example. The contribution does not have to be as profound and there are lesser ideas that can be shared more often. The point is that content should have some intrinsic value, not vacuous opinion or blatant self-promotion that the vast majority of companies pass off as conversation.

Share. Distribute the information through the various available channels: a tweet, a Vine video, a Facebook posting, a LinkedIn update or maybe a Google hangout. That’s your contribution to the conversation, widely shared.

Participate. Listen to the response, reply in kind and contribute to other conversations that are taking place.

The first two steps are relatively easy, although the hurdle is high enough to prevent the vast rump of companies from sharing anything even vaguely original. The third step is really hard, especially the intelligent response to continue the conversation.

There is certainly a lot of shouting, posturing and re-tweeting, but there is precious little fair exchange of information. When last did you reply to a tweet and receive a coherent response, or indeed, found anyone else in your network joining in? Have you looked at the quality of comments on the Daily Beast? Or indeed the Harvard Business Review, where posturing is at its most potent?

Our conversations will improve as we get used to the new media. But we are currently in the Neanderthal stage of our social media evolution – our conversation is but a grunt and re-grunt. It has yet to evolve into a useful exchange.

And herein lies the opportunity for those who really want to engage with their stakeholders. As the social media evolves – and change will be rapid – stakeholder engagement will take place there. Those who really want to engage should start now and familiarise themselves with the complexities and begin to develop the necessary skills to listen and learn.

Given that every company is now a publisher, the best starting point is to improve the quality of your content. Cyberspace is such a poverty-stricken place that good content will set you apart. Make your next tweet more than a grunt.

Peter Knight is chairman of Context.

Peter Knight  social media trends  stakeholder engagement 

The Responsible Business Summit 2014

May 2014, London, UK

Make sustainable innovation add to your bottom line. 15+ CEOs and C-Suite from leading multinationals plus heads of CSR will discuss the future of sustainability

comments powered by Disqus