Theory, policy and practice perspectives from Royal Holloway

Communicating Sustainability: social media uses and abuses

Leave a comment

“We need a Facebook page.”

This is a statement no doubt heard in many social media strategy meetings up and down the country. Be it a Facebook page, a Twitter handle or a Pinterest site, we have an inherent tendency to jump to thinking about the tools of social media when planning our communications approaches, rather than the purposes for communication in these ‘new’ media contexts.

As I sat down with Prof. Laura Spence and Dr. Sigrun Wager to develop the Centre for Research into Sustainability (CRIS) social media strategy at the start of the new academic term, we also discussed this quandary. In the context of research into sustainability, what is the purpose of social media communication and which tools do we both need and not need?

My own research into language use in social media contexts has revealed interesting dynamics regarding the way in which social media are both used and abused. Working with Dr. Rob Caruana and Dr. Sally Hibbert at The University of Nottingham Business School, I studied the Facebook pages of four UK-based retailers over a period of three years to determine how sustainability communication ‘happens.’ The findings provided insight into how organisations are communicating about sustainability in social media:

  1. Information Dissemination: While research suggests that social media provide unique opportunities to engage stakeholders more readily in sustainability, the reality is that social media are not currently being used very differently from traditional communication channels (e.g. Corporate Social Responsibility reports, websites, T.V campaigns, etc.). In a number of the cases analysed, it appeared that social media were actually conceived of as conduits to ‘push’ information out to passive stakeholder audiences, with little interaction taking place.
  2. Stealth Tactics: Perhaps symbolically providing an online ‘space’ within which sustainability conversations can occur, the Facebook pages of the retailers under study were still actively ‘managed’ by the page owners. Posts were deleted, rules for engagement were enforced and comments and questions, at times, went unanswered. The Facebook pages, in fact, provided a rich depository of data into which organisational actors might covertly delve to ‘listen’ to topics of interest, with little evidence of response. This silence strategy is particularly risky given the popular idiom that, “one cannot not communicate,” (Watzlawick et al., 1967:48) (the idea that silence can be speak louder than words).
  3. Deliberative Dialogue: Whilst in the minority, the findings revealed one retailer that used its Facebook page to engage in fluid and open dialogue with its stakeholders around sustainability issues. From sensitive social topics, through to macro environmental concerns, here the social media site provided a forum for active engagement and interactivity, living up to the core premise of ‘new’ media. Herein, social media became a platform for ‘co-construction’ of sustainability; an online space within which new meanings were created by organisations and Other retailers were more interactive in their marketing-related communications, but less adept at using their platforms for stakeholder engagement around sustainability.

An undue focus on the tools of social media has resulted in a focus upon communication to and for stakeholders, rather than communication with (Morsing & Schultz, 2006). I believe that the honest response to the “We need a Facebook page” statement is to ask, “How do we plan to use it?”


Sarah Glozer (@Sarah_CSR) is a Lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway and part of the Centre for Research into Sustainability (CRIS) (@RHUL_CRIS)



Morsing, M. & Schultz, M. (2006). “Corporate social responsibility communication: stakeholder information, response and involvement strategies,” Business Ethics: A European Review, 15(4), 325.

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J.H. & Jackson, D.D. (1967). Pragmatics of Human Communication, W.W. Norton & Company: New York.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s