Earlier this month I attended the Association of Business Communication regional conference held at the University of Cape Town, where I presented on ‘Engaging audiences early: the role of social media and networks to develop a communication strategy in the ROER4D project’. While the main thrust of the conference was around business communications, the conference itself hosted presentations from many fields and perspectives with attendees from business schools, professional communication, English language, ethics, online learning and linguistics collectively focused on sharing research and practice around communication.
Overview of the conference
I was particularly interested in presentations in the “Technological Developments, Virtual Communications, New Media Challenges and Impacts” theme. Among the varied topics, there were a number of presentations about how organisations are using social media for engaging with dialogue with potential consumers and customers. I particularly enjoyed listening to presentations that analysed social media posts responding to different airlines notification of delays and considered whether one set of customers was more polite, while another presentation investigated whether Tweets with @org at the start of the tweet led to increased responses (it did). One presentation’s research revealed that an organisation’s social media responses were seen as more credible if the sender included personal pronouns and signed off the tweet with initials. That there was a specific social media and digital theme at the conference attests to the growing research interest in looking at social media, social media practices, and how these participatory forms of communication form an increasingly important part of organisations’ communications strategy, brand building or reputation management. Reputation management and risk seemed to be predominant areas of concern, at least in the presentations I attended, with tools for tracking social media presence and tips for how to limit and respond to negative comments discussed. A keynote panel discussing ethics similarly looked at how influential social media is, how organisations can control the message, and what opportunities social media channels present to communicators.
Alignment with ROER4D Communication activities
ROER4D’s work in research communications for development may not have the same motivations as for a business communications strategy since we are not selling products or providing a commercial service. Yet some of the tools, techniques and thinking are similar and those working in business communications and research communications have much to gain from sharing experiences. The ROER4D project shares a strong commitment to communicate the project’s research outputs in ways that engage with and are useful to potential stakeholders. Other motivations for effective communication are to amplify as far as possible global south OER research and establish credibility for the research by maintaining integrity and rigour in how findings are communicated. Our ‘open research’ approach is underpinned by and facilitates an ‘open communications’ approach, where the work of ROER4D is shared as far as possible openly, transparently and timeously through channels that find and engage stakeholders and in formats and mediums that attract and encourage dialogue. Further than that, the nature of the communication seeks to engage with a number of stakeholders in the OER, open education and development communities through invitations for participation. The sharing of literature reviews as through the ROER4D Bibliography at the network level and SP 10.3’s annotated bibliography at project level, the hosting of work-in-progress presentations on the ROER4D slideshare, and invitation to the OER community to comment on draft papers through Google Docs are some of the organic strategies that have developed to facilitate early audience engagement. Another possible consequence is that by sharing and modelling our research techniques, such as talking about data management, communications or evaluation techniques, these activities will help build capacity within the project and be of use to other research projects – but of course others need to hear about this through communication activities!
Monitoring and evaluating the ROER4D communications work is an important element of the team’s work. Social media in particular is participatory and the nature, scale and quality of interactions can be analysed and acted upon in order to improve the nature of the communications. As I mentioned in my conference presentation, in our team our Evaluation Advisor Sarah Goodier assists with monitoring and tracking indicators of our communications activities as part of her utilisation focused evaluation work, so we gauge what interactions and conversations are happening on social media and respond and strategise accordingly. Tools that we are using and learning about include Twitter analytics, TAGS and NodeXL.
I’m also mindful that the social media channels are a small part of the potential media and channels with which we can communicate our research findings. This Guardian online article on the limitations of Twitter’s reach is a helpful reminder that it may be unwise to focus on one social media channel without understanding its use and limitations for the intended audience. Communications is an ongoing process of learning and iteration, responding and building. The two way dialogic process afforded by social media does however assist in learning about both enablers and constraints of the medium itself.