Using Social Media as an Issues Management Tool

What is social media? No two people will define social media in the same way, but the common foundation is an online platform for individuals to engage in a two-way dialogue, sharing information. Perhaps Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia that is itself an early example of social media, describes it best as “using the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to connect information in a collaborative manner.”

This “democratization” of information allows anyone online to have a direct communications channel that can influence not only opinions about your company and its issues, but also can impact your bottom line results. In fact, according to a recent Columbia University study, 51% of journalists rely on blogs for story ideas. More importantly, the interplay between audiences offers different perspectives that could end up taking a story in an entirely new direction.

While issue management processes differ from company to company, all include three key steps where social media can inform thinking and action: issue identification and intelligence, issue evaluation and prioritization, and strategy development and implementation.

Issue Identification and Intelligence. Social media applications – including wikis, discussion boards, blogs, social networking applications (such as Facebook or My Space) and even videos from people who have tried your product or have concerns about your business – can provide both negative and positive feedback to consider. In fact, for better or worse, some of the participants in these forums may be your own employees. Microsoft has more than 3,000 bloggers, with at least 500 active ones, some of whom serve as corporate ambassadors on a variety of business-related issues. Microsoft also calls on some of its bloggers to impact search engine optimization results by asking people on their e-mail lists to visit a targeted site. And from a corporate reputation perspective, sites like jobvent.com allow employees to post favorable or unfavorable comments about your company.

Issue Evaluation and Prioritization. Blogs and other tools can help signal not only how high or low your stakeholders’ expectations are for your company or industry sector, but also how active they already are on the issue and whether the issue is waxing or waning. Better understanding what your stakeholders are saying about you or a competitor in real time can provide critical information to inform your strategy and actions – whether they are defensive or opportunistic. Verizon, for example, has policyblog.verizon.com, which “seeks to encourage intelligent discussion of public policy issues affecting the telecommunications industry and Verizon in particular.” The blog can serve as a sounding board on how stakeholders view policy-related issues and the company’s position.

Strategy Development and Implementation. Some social media may be an ideal tool to help you engage with relevant stakeholders. This may be to set the record straight or to take advantage of an opportunity for your company or its products to stand out as leaders in your market. These tools can also help you proactively test the reaction to a potential issue or your ideas for addressing it. In any case, transparency, balance and accessibility are critical qualities in these kinds of discussions. The Timberland Company, for example, is one company that utilizes YouTube to tell its story on issues and invite comments. One video, entitled “Earthkeeper Declaration,” includes on its page the statement that “we realize that by making our products, we're part of the problem. We believe it's time for companies, like ours, to take a look at how the way they do business affects the environment and do something about it. "Earthkeepers" is one way we're trying to do exactly that.” http://www.youtube.com/user/TheTimberlandCompany

As social media applications continue to grow in the business community, the question is no longer should or shouldn’t your company participate. Instead, smart issue managers will continuously explore how best to embrace these revolutionary tools to help you spot emerging issues and turn them into leadership opportunities.

(*This article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Corporate Public Issues and Their Management, Issue Management Council.)