CEOs finally start to cotton on to social media changes

Social media is at last becoming a board-level issue.

Unless you have been living on a different planet for the last five years, you will have noticed that your business or practice has changed. Or rather, you will have noticed that the conversations around you and your organisation have changed, and either you have adapted and adopted new ways or you might soon be losing business to rivals who have. The change in question is the arrival of social media. What five years ago seemed like an interesting fad for a few geeks and the better-connected type of nerd has blossomed into a major part of most business life.

While professional services may be some way behind the most up-to-minute, youth-oriented, consumer-facing brands, more forward-thinking firms within the sector have nevertheless reacted to this increasing demand for a meaningful social conversation and have put in place some sort of social media strategy.

The full impact of some of these changes is well highlighted in a new report by Useful Social Media (USM). In its third annual State of Corporate Social Media briefing, it reveals the extent to which social media is maturing. Having been introduced to organisations largely as an addition to the marketing function (which itself partly explains why B2C firms are much more comfortable with the subject than B2B firms), social media has, according to the USM report, started to spread across organisations. Issues as diverse as gaining better customer insight, protecting (and improving) corporate reputation and even developing stronger employee engagement are all being tackled through social media. With the exception of the employee engagement element, B2C companies are more likely to use social media for all of these things than their B2B counterparts.

So what are the lessons for professional services firms from the latest trends in social media? It’s unlikely that many accountancy firms, however large, will benefit from the kind of resource put into social media by a consumer-facing company such as American Airlines, which reportedly responds to over 8,000 tweets a month. And each within 15 minutes. But there are clear advantages from central marketing departments learning to let go and encouraging social media for business purposes to spread through the organisation. One lesson is that the most prolific and effective social media users allow at least four named individuals to run the social media and often have more than six working on it. While for the world of B2B that mostly means LinkedIn, along with Twitter and some Facebook, for B2C that means Facebook as well as a host of newer growing social media outlets such as Pinterest and Instagram.

But statements about the effectiveness of social media highlight the area of greatest concern. How do you measure return on investment in social media? What does an effective social media campaign look like? Is it simply about driving traffic to a website or (worse still) about simply counting the number of followers you have? As the USM report makes clear, this is one area where there is still much to be learned right across the market. If consumer brands sometimes struggle to understand exactly why they are engaging so heavily in social media (are they keeping in touch with consumers or keeping up with competitors?), then how much rarer must it be to find an accountancy firm that understands what it is all for?

Of course, some accountants and firms have managed to build up impressive reputations and followings on Twitter, while LinkedIn is bursting with groups of finance directors and practitioners sharing grievances and sometimes solving problems together. In a profession that’s all about people, it follows that building a strong reputation as a key expert and knowledge point within a community can help you to build influence and might ultimately lead to more business. The issue is that so far there is very little real evidence to back up this common sense.

According to the USM report, it is apparent that “the advent of corporate social media adoption has had a deep and lasting impact on organisational structures”. It is clear that social media for some will become a catalyst for change within large organisations. What was once a grand experiment is now a routine part of how firms interact and learn about customers. As the USM report explains, “It has forced organisations to re-think how, when, where and why they communicate with their customers.”

For larger global firms, social media is also boosting global collaboration. Previously, where organisations were often highly compartmentalised or stuck in silos, the development of new models for working with social media has led to new ways of thinking more generally and is forcing teams to realise social media cannot be “owned” by the marketing team or any other single business unit.

Perhaps most importantly, social media is at last becoming a board-level issue and a concern for CEOs and senior partners. It may feel like something for younger practitioners or smaller firms, but even if you’re not sure why it matters just yet, and regardless of what type of business or practice you work in, social media will only get more important in the years ahead.

This article first appeared on economia

Twitter. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.