By John Stevenson
In recent years, many Fortune 500 companies have joined the social media community. Websites like Facebook and Twitter have undoubtedly “disrupted” the corporate world, especially those corporations who historically dealt more with businesses and suppliers rather than smartphone-wielding consumers.
However, International Paper’s (IP) activity on social media was mostly nonexistent, aside from a Twitter feed of job postings and a few pages for the company’s consumer-oriented brands. That changed in 2013, when the global leader in paper and packaging began a years-in-the-making launch of its companywide Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.
I joined IP’s marketing and communications team as an intern in January 2013 and was privileged to witness and assist with the development and execution of the Fortune 125 company’s social media rollout.
But why now? Why in 2013, years after the social media boom, did IP decide to plunge into the virtual domain of tweets, hashtags and timelines?
Consumers and businesses’ perception of the paper industry is complex, especially in regards to the environment. Unfortunately, numerous misconceptions exist surrounding the use of paper. These myths fuel anti-paper campaigns from entities who desire a paperless society. Since social media usage generally constitutes a two-way digital “conversation,” IP’s leaders were concerned that social media pages would give anti-paper advocates a public platform upon which to criticize the company.
But IP’s competitors were increasingly leveraging social media platforms to connect with customers and the general public.
“We needed to weigh the business value versus the potential risk,” said Jessica Savage, manager of IP’s social media initiatives and online marketing.
She began researching and learning about social media trends and best practices so that she could educate others at IP who did not see how something containing the word “social” could benefit a “business.”
Savage understood leaders’ wariness. However, she reminded them that the company “had to be okay with people saying negative things on [IP’s] social media pages” and that those messages “did not mean that [IP was] a bad company.”
“We had to provide education around the business application,” she said. “We showed them what other businesses were doing with social media.”
With extensive research and data from inside and outside of the company, IP’s social media team demonstrated how these tools could benefit the primarily business-to-business company.
“Eventually, we all felt the value did outweigh the potential for negativity or risk,” Savage said.
While social media pages would give paper-use critics a platform to voice their dislike of IP, those pages would give IP an opportunity to respond publically with fact and tact.
But IP had to be prepared to talk back. In a social-media brainstorming meeting in mid-2013, I recall one of my supervisors reminding the team that we could not respond to heated messages solely with fact. Fortunately, IP is a green-thinking business with an increasing focus on sustainability. The company has an abundance of facts and data to support their Earth-friendly efforts.
However, responding to a passionate (and upset) opponent of paper-use with mind-numbing data or statistics would not reflect the company’s investment in the environment. Therefore, IP’s social media team developed a strategy for responding to potential anti-paper messages.
In addition to telling IP’s sustainability story, Savage named the recruiting of young talent as an added bonus to IP’s social media accounts. She said that many young professionals are “looking for a company to be on social media.”
She added that IP’s social media pages also allow the company to share news items that are not “press-release worthy,” but still merit attention. She says Facebook and Twitter provide a great outlet for those “mid-level stories.”
Rather than simply avoid uncontrollable criticism on these public social media platforms, IP has put its best minds on the task of constructing a smart and thorough social media strategy that leverages the company’s respected name and brand in the digital world.
Savage notes that IP is rolling out its social media slowly and carefully, and that there is still much to do in this new digital frontier.
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