Social media for engineering companies Last week, November 2, Shell ran a Twitter poll asking its followers what they are willing to change to help solve the climate crisis. The company received thousands of replies, pointing out that there is an irony inherent in a company responsible for two per cent of all historic emissions asking such a thing. But was it really that bad a tweet? One of Stone Junction's experts in social media for engineering companies, Richard Stone, offers his view. 

The fashionable position is to pillory Shell for proving itself to be one of the few organisations in history to understand irony less than Alanis Morrissette’s songwriting team. But I do think there is a kernel of honesty, and authentic public relations thinking, at the very heart of what the company has done.

Clearly, that kernel is massively outweighed by their lack of risk analysis, audience understanding and common sense, but it is there.

By the way, my favourite of the replies Shell was received was this one, from Bill Weir at CNN, who said, “This is like Freddy Krueger asking what you’re willing to change to get better sleep.” 

Ah, the larks. But back to that kernel of authenticity. The truth is, like nearly every global player in the energy market, Shell is trying to change its model to a carbon positive one. Like nearly every player in the global energy market, that’s really damned difficult because it burns fossil fuels to drive turbines that produce electricity. That’s not super high up the list of planet-friendly things to do. 

"Nevertheless, it’s true to say that, like most engineering companies, Shell is attempting to change. As a result, the most authentic position it can present in its social media work is exactly that; it’s a global fossil-fuels based energy company that’s attempting to change."

Furthermore, Shell doesn’t force people to buy its products. I’m as plastic-free as the next Guardian reading leftie you might bump into down at your local vegan market. But I still bought a plastic bag and filled my hybrid electric car up with petrol this morning. I’m still sitting in a house warmed with gas and electric. Gas and electric sold by a ‘green’ energy supplier admittedly, but I’m reasonably certain there is no pipe running directly from my house to a little wind turbine in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by dolphins, frolicking in a carbon-free seatopia.

Shell is merely recognising implicitly that we are all part of the problem and we all need to change. The tweet was heavy-handed, ill-thought-out, condescending and lacked an awareness of history, but it wasn’t a lie.

Easy-to-avoid mistakes engineering companies make on social media

The mistake the global energy giant made was to forget that Twitter, like all micro-blogging platforms (that’s what we used to call them back in 2007 – Ed), isn’t a continuum in which the audience understands or values your backstory. Social media posts are context free messages, which will be interpreted in an echo chamber of the audience’s own creation.

(That’s a clever-sounding way of saying it’s like shouting about how great you are in a room full of people who are also shouting that they hate you. You might be great. You might be in a room full of people who stop shouting about you after a bit and show you a picture of their cat instead. Or it might be that they don’t hate you all that much. But either way, you have zero control over the context of your message.)

All Shell is guilty of is being naïve at a party full of sophisticates. It’s core strategy of associating itself with change in the energy market, and recognising that change must be a collaborative effort, isn’t flawed. It’s a company selling energy to people who buy energy when all is said and done. Its positioning benefits both itself and those of us who need to salve our consciences when we are down the vegan market.

Isn’t that ironic?   

Richard Stone is the founder of Stone Junction, a specialist STEM PR agency delivering international and digital PR and social media services for engineering companies as well as scientific and technology firms. 

In his spare time, he likes to drive his hybrid car to the vegan market while blasting Alanis Morrisette. Why not give him a call on +44 (0)1785 225416 or email him at richards@stonejunction.co.uk. 

About the author

Richard Stone
Richard Stone - CHART.PR, MCIPR

Stone Junction is managed by Richard Stone, a chartered member of the CIPR whose previous experience includes campaigns for Arup, AIT Plc, CIENA, Parker Hannifin, Schneider Electric, SIG, SKF, Roche and WorldCom.

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