To act or to react: shaping external conversations through social media

After listening to our October 27th blackboard collaborate session I was very intrigued to analyze aspects of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Habermas’s critical theory and Gleick’s book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. One comment that really sparked my interest is that we live in a society where “we act, rather than react” to important issues. This statement struck a chord in my professional life, as the industry I work in strives to understand what Canadians know and think about energy in order to “react” to negative opinions.

Growing up in Fort McMurray and now working in external communications for an oil sands company, I have found myself smack dab in the middle of an “oil sands PR war.” There is rarely a day that goes by where at least one special interest group, environmental activist or Hollywood celebrity, isn’t trending online for taking another critical shot at Canada’s oil sands. These debates mostly materialize on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, highlighting the idea that social media is breaking the hegemonic dominance of mass media. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony describes the “ways particular political forces achieved hegemonic authority, and the delineation of counterhegemonic forces, groups, and ideas that could contest and overthrow the existing hegemony” (Durham & Kellner, 2006, p. 15-16). The Internet gives people the ability to freely share their thoughts and express views that often differ from traditional mass media outlets. This online world has created a counterhegemonic platform of conversation and debate where marginalized voices utilize the virtual sphere. Social media heightens the public voice and demands a level of connectivity that companies cannot choose to ignore.

Social Media consumes my working life from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and sometimes even into the wee hours of the morning. My team’s approach is to turn on all commenting functions and enable direct engagement with company spokespersons. This open dialogue requires us to respond quickly in order to stimulate conversation and share our company’s story effectively. Gleick (2000) comments on this quest for speed in our lives, from television without commercials, smartphones, to “instant” microwavable meals. We desire instantaneous communication and loathe devices that waste or delay our time. We live in an age where information spreads like wildfire and companies need to monitor the Internet carefully. The worst thing a company can do is stay silent or refuse to comment during a conversation or issue. While the answer may not be readily available, I have learned that it is important to emphasis accessibility and availability – to put the brakes on potential controversy.

Habermas’s principles of the ideal speech situation outline mutual understanding, truth, sincere expression, the right to speak and legitimacy as key factors to maintaining communication and developing common understanding (Gingrich, n.d.). These values speak to the fact that companies cannot just act, but need to react with knowledge to build credibility with audiences. Cenovus Energy has attempted to “react” to negative perceptions of the oil sands industry with the following ads:

Through the lens of Habermas’s principles, the company’s attempt to foster a responsible conversation hinges on the mutual understanding that oil adds legitimate value to our daily lives. Furthermore, their ability to connect the resource to life-changing, inspiring situations leaves the viewer with impressions of sincere expression and truth. Cenovus has placed these ads on YouTube and Facebook in order to tap into the social media realm and encourage dialogue on one of the industry’s most controversial platforms. Many oil sands companies are following suit to help set the stage for a more open and honest debate. This discourse is explained by Habermas as one where “all concerned take part, freely and equally, in a cooperative search for truth, where noting coerces anyone except the force of a better argument” (Gingrich, n.d., p. 10). His thoughts capture the ability of social media to bring diverse people from all over the world together to talk about common concerns. While social media comes with its own set of unique challenges, it ultimately forces companies to actively listen and guide their business with transparency. My daily attempt to react, rather than simply act in the face of controversy has become the most rewarding aspect of my career.

Please feel free to share your comments below. I’m very interested to learn how other companies/industries use social media to shape external conversations.

References

Durham, M.G. & Kellner, D.M. (2006). Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Gingrich, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Work of Jurgen Habermas. Retrieved from http://moodle233.msvu.ca/m23/course/view.php?id=3449.

Gleick, J. (1999). Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York: Pantheon Books.

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