A few years ago, a media analysis company sent me what they must have figured was a pretty scary email which would make me buy their internet tracking and analysis services.

Over a 90-day period, I was told, their web tools had found 15 million new mentions of Shell in various places on the Internet, mostly on blogs. And some pretty ghastly things had been said.

I told them it was unfortunate that we couldn’t gather, group and analyze all those mentions, and respond where it might make sense. I added, unhelpfully, that we probably didn’t need to, anyway, since most of the traffic about Shell reminded me of post-it notes in Cyberspace.

In our existing tool kit of stakeholder analysis, which included a web component, I felt that we had a pretty good sense of the online campaigns and discussions about Shell, our industry and our own company issues.

Our web team looked at the data assembled by the media analysis provider, and found that most of these 15 million mentions were indeed of little relevance. (I know I sound like an old curmudgeon, but bear with me)

Views rather than news, mostly, and most of it also sorely lacking context, perspective and balance. Some of the blog site discussion chains we did track looked like verbal towel snapping in some senior high school sports field changing room.

Already then, in 2007 and 2008, we kept track of 60 or so websites and key blogs that we knew influenced journalists and government staffers.

Those blogs and websites, mostly run by Non-Governmental Organizations or dedicated subject experts, had context and even perspective – albeit often different from Shell’s corporate view. And balance? Well, let’s not get too picky here.

A little later, in order to broaden our contact surface and better influence the debate among opinion formers, we restarted something which in the late 90’s had been called Tell Shell – an internet forum for discussion with Shell. It was an early user-generated blog, with Shell responses.

We called the new launch Shell Dialogues. It is still running. To look at a live example, click on the link. http://www.shelldialogues.com/

Shell Dialogues, and real-life Shell Energy Debates held in key countries with invited opinion formers and Shell executives before large audiences, became the focal point for other social media initiatives.

And we deployed many of the gizmos, forums and channels referenced in the great study done by FedEx and Ketchum.

Like many a CCO, I wondered what impact social media would have on the way we worked and our organizational structure. There were two immediate impacts:

We needed to learn to join the discussions where they were taking place – and we needed to make the website more interactive.

Experience showed that our Internet real estate around http://www.shell.com might be an effective shop window, and a good place to do some business.

But it was not the cool coffee shop or the reputational hanging scaffold where those interacting with Shell over our issues wanted the discussion to take place. So we went to their sites.

To enable authentic, empowered and timely engagement on blogs, we trained media spokespeople on how to adapt corporate positions to more casual blog language without risking the ire of those in Shell whose job it was to control ‘disclosure’.

And we let usage – wonderful transparency was created by a visible home page tag cloud and additional backroom traffic and use tracking – steer us on how to revamp our site.

But, and here is my point – until we know what the question is that the emergence and ever widening use of social media by corporate and non-corporate actors raises, I don’t think we can know the answer.

Social media is an amplifier and accelerator of the fragmentation we see in society. And social media is a hugely powerful enabler for people to create communities of purpose, and to turn their engagement into pressure, power and positive outcomes.

To make this make sense for corporations, we must address the challenge posed by social media’s tendency to spread trivia, views and noise rather than news with context and relevance.

I believe the basics of PR apply with this task, too.

Create a compelling narrative, share it – through real dialogue – with your stakeholders in ways that builds and cements relationships.

If you can deploy social media in this process – and you can – make use of them. But they won’t be the new beacon that will transform stakeholder or customer relationships, or make a dodgy argument stick..

Social media can magnify what’s there. It can help you reach out to more people. That is good if you’re ready and able to manage more relationships – and more demands.

But they will only work for you if you remember that receiving – or listening – comes before sending.

Bjorn Edlund
Retd EVP Communications, Royal Dutch Shell plc
Principal, Edlund Consulting Ltd.