If social media is part of your stakeholder engagement strategy, it's got to be two-way or it can do more harm than good.
At the start of January 2018, there were 44 million social media users in the UK. That means over half the entire population are consuming content on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and more.
When it comes to online activity more broadly, 9 out of 10 households now have internet access, with daily access more than doubling since 2006. Mobiles and smartphones are the most popular devices used to access the internet with nearly 8 out of 10 adults accessing the internet 'on the go'.
People now consume a vast amount of digital content, every day, with social media in particular being the primary source of news for many (which is why print media has been in decline). They are also more connected than they have ever been before.
All of this has significant implications for businesses bringing forward plans for new infrastructure, especially if it is or could easily become in some way 'controversial'.
Impacts for infrastructure projects
For a start, people obtain a lot of their 'knowledge' from online sources nowadays but because the accuracy of the information posted on websites and social media networks can't always be verified, there's a danger that project stakeholders will come across information falsely presented as fact.
Then there's the ease with which those minded to set themselves against a proposed development can organise into a campaign group - then connect and align themselves with other campaigners, sharing members and resources. And let's be clear: campaigners and activists are not afraid to weaponise social media where they think it will advance their cause.
To counteract these influences, you need to have your own social media presence.
Taking to social media
Getting on social media is easy. If you're already using Facebook and LinkedIn, setting up a company page on these platforms takes no time at all. It's even quicker to set up a Twitter account.
Social media can help your messages and content gain more traction, but first you need a following. That takes time organically, and so it can sometimes help to run advertising campaigns with the objective of acquiring new followers.
The trouble is, once you start using social media, you have to keep at it. If there's a lull, your followers - people that might otherwise be really interested in what you've got to say - will soon switch off. Re-engaging them can then be tough.
But when you're using social media for stakeholder engagement and to support a broader communications strategy around your infrastructure project, whether you're looking to build a large-scale solar farm or a housing estate, you need to be prepared to respond to people that interact with you. You can't simply use social media to communicate one-way, broadcasting messages to your audience that you want them to see - you need to be active on your threads, replying to people that contact you, thanking them for 'liking' and sharing your content, and answering their questions, even those from people that might be opposed to your plans.
“It's a dialogue, not a monologue, and some people don't understand that. Social media is more like a telephone than a television.” - @AmyJoMartin
What happens when you do social media badly
Firstly, let's look at what happens if you're not on social media at all: in this day and age, given the proliferation of businesses and campaigns that use it, your absence will criticised by organised opposition groups and activists. They'll insist it's because you're not prepared to engage in debate and, worse still, that you have something to hide. And you'll lose the ability to influence people's perception.
If you do use platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter but you only use them as additional, one-way broadcast channels, you'll be accused of ignoring genuine concerns and failing to be accessible.
In both cases, the outcome for your business and your scheme is negative.
Using social media effectively for stakeholder engagement
You now know that you need to be on social media or the facts about your infrastructure development plans could easily get lost. And you know that you need followers to help spread your messages, but that for it to work as part of your overall approach to stakeholder engagement, you also need to remain actively engaged and use social media as a valuable feedback loop as well as just another broadcast channel.
So, how do you make sure you're using it effectively and how can you measure the results?
All of the various social platforms will provide you with some basic analytics - so you can track the number of impressions your posts have received, and your follower count, and, on some platforms, mentions. These are useful stats and definitely worth measuring, but on their own they can turn out to be vanity metrics.
To get a better sense of how successful your social media use is, you need to also track visits to your website (you can use Google Analytics or the Bing equivalent) to ascertain the source - it's easy to quickly discover which social channels are bringing visitors to your site and what content they are accessing.
And, last but not least, you need to track genuine interactions - and make some assessment of sentiment (positive v negative). This is the hardest bit to measure - especially if one of your social media posts suddenly gets a lot of attention and a lot of people start commenting on it and 'liking' it - but it's definitely the metric that's going to be of most value to you.
It is difficult to imagine why you wouldn't want to make social media a part of your stakeholder engagement strategy in support of your scheme. It can be a very valuable tool when it comes to rebutting the wild claims that can sometimes be circulated by opponents of your plans, can provide a mechanism for you to reply to genuine questions and concerns, and can help you to share your messages and key content.
• get social
• measure interactions not just impressions
• make it two-way by responding to people