In the exploration, development and mining sector, it is recognized that negative news – often one-sided stories prepared by activist organizations and anti-development groups – spreads quickly, while positive stories – those that demonstrate the value and benefits that the mineral development sector brings to society – are plenty, but are not well disseminated. Corporate social responsibility and communications professionals are well aware that media outlets are interested in stories of conflict and controversy as opposed to positive stories of collaboration and win-win partnerships.
The speed and breadth of social media seems to have made this dichotomy even more prominent. In 2014, Deloitte published its Tracking the Trends report, which expressed that “. . . mining companies are in the spotlight – as cast not only by international media but also by a growing number of monitoring and standard setting bodies. Social media has elevated these activities to new levels, enabling the instantaneous and global dissemination of news in real time. As a result, corporate reputations, access rights to new discoveries and market valuations are all at risk like never before.” This presents both opportunities and challenges to the sector.
Even with staggering data showing Facebook has over 1.15 billion users and Twitter has 550 million, when it comes to social media, exploration and mining companies are still dragging their feet to join. The “conversations” in these forums include, at a growing rate, the environmental and social performance of the sector. Perhaps what stops many companies from actively participating in these conversations about their own performance is the belief that joining these types of communication outlets increases the risk of overexposure and subsequent disparagement.
Yet not all companies fear the risk of venturing onto social media, having instead recognized the benefits of using it to communicate their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts and achievements, and to reach increased levels of engagement with a wider range of stakeholders. Vancouver-based Goldcorp, the world’s second-largest gold producer, actively participates on Facebook, Twitter, StockTwits, SlideShare, LinkedIn and YouTube, mainly regarding investor relations and CSR, as well as for recruiting. In May 2014, Goldcorp ran a campaign about its CSR performance and doubled its number of retweets, increased its number of Twitter mentions by 30 per cent, tripled its weekly Facebook reach and had four times as many people talking about the company on Facebook. In two months alone it received 15,000 YouTube views. The company generated content on EBL Media, a channel that caters to CSR influencers and others interested in environment, social and governance issues, and received over 250,000 views, according to Christine Marks, Goldcorp’s director of corporate communication. “Clearly, social media is becoming an increasingly important part of the communications toolbox in terms of reaching new and broader audiences, particularly in regards to our CSR programs and achievements.”
Goldcorp isn’t the only company adding social media to its toolbox. “For a smaller-cap company, specifically in the mining sector, like Great Panther Silver, we first had to figure out where our investors were going to look for information about us – including issues related to community relations and environmental performance. Then we tailored those platforms to make it easier for them to find us,” says Rhonda Bennetto, a certain enthusiast of social media who was, until recently, vice-president of corporate communications at Great Panther Silver. “We decided to use Twitter, StockTwits, Virtua, Facebook, LinkedIn and then Vimeo and SlideShare.”
In the case of NovaCopper, Patrick Donnelly, vice-president of corporate communications, states that for NovaCopper, “the Facebook page is primarily geared towards community relations with the First Nations people, whereas Twitter is primarily for retail investors, shareholders and analysts.”
The nature of the media strategies for these companies range from increased stakeholder engagement to an attraction platform for new shareholders, who, as part of recent trends, now request not just financial information from companies, but also social and environmental information supported by solid proof through performance measurements.
When consulted about social risk though electronic media feeds that are external to the company, transparency is the front-runner of the conversation. Bennetto says, “We use Facebook a lot to communicate with our community and report on social events/strategy/contributions, and I’m certain NGOs are reading our material. The only place you could get into trouble is fabricating the truth, exaggerating what you are really doing or fibbing about the benefits to the community.”
Bennetto advocates honesty above all: “You must be honest on the web – someone will find out. Post thoughtfully and with due diligence (especially if you are quoting numbers).” She adds, “I know of one example where a company said their mining operation contributed directly or indirectly to a number of other jobs, when in reality that was not true – you will lose your audience and your credibility. Make sure you have your facts correct, post lots of pictures of your community events and credit others for their work (i.e., submitted pictures). Your community becomes your public relations defence mechanism.”
“Our Facebook page is one of the tools we use to reach out to our stakeholders in Alaska,” says Donnelly of NovaCopper. “We have a rewards and recognition program from which we recognize the achievements of our employees. Given that a significant amount of our seasonal workers are indigenous people, showing pictures of them on Facebook while recognizing their achievements creates a lot of goodwill with the local communities and shows that we are committed to our employees and stakeholders.”
But what are the challenges for companies that have already hopped on the social media bandwagon or are still flirting with the idea?
In order to maintain the ongoing conversation about social performance on social media, it is important to closely monitor how the company is being portrayed and to regularly produce content: updated information and interesting stories to keep interest and relevance. Monitoring, scheduling, continuous engagement and oversight are concepts that Marks of Goldcorp emphasizes to make these communication tools effective. “Depending on the scale of the program, it’s beneficial to designate a person or team to oversee the company’s engagement, to respond and proactively share information. It’s not the sort of thing you want to hand off to an intern without some oversight.”
With an industry that is tightly regulated, social media – often viewed as one of the most unregulated forms of communication – can seem like walking through a minefield. A simple rule of thumb is that if it is public information, then it can be shared on social media. Bennetto says she was lucky that the Great Panther senior management and board supported the social media strategy. “I think you will find that is one of the biggest challenges for investor relations people – trying to get senior management to buy in.”
When it comes to engaging with social media, there are many arguments for and against it to influence companies who are considering joining the conversation. Mining companies are definitely in the early stages and only a few are very active, while most are still testing the waters. Junior and mid-cap companies that are thinking about joining or are still too far from taking that step complain that allocating resources to this task is not possible at a time when “hire and spending freeze” are minted words. Hiring more staff, creating policies and paying for external legal services are an extra strain on resources that many cannot afford.
According to Bennetto, however, it may not be as difficult as companies think. “Social media is scary,” she says, “but you can cut through the noise and figure out what is right for your company and your message pretty easily (and cost-effectively).”
Besides, adds Marks, “If companies are not engaging in social media and shaping a conversation about their brand, someone else will.”