The importance of social ‘listening’

By Mike Hayes28 November 2022

The global construction sector was already battling a majority of negative social media sentiment when the United Nations Environment Programme released its 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction at COP 27 in Egypt early in November.

Photo: Adobe Stock

The build environment is responsible for some 40% of global, energy-related carbon emissions; with this in mind, the UN’s assertion that the buildings and construction sector isn’t even on track to achieve decarbonisation by 2050 will have come as sobering news for business leaders in the sector – particularly those who have pledged to put Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) at the heart of operations and use it as a lynchpin of positive communications outside of traditional contracts news.

Social media discussion around construction has risen sharply since 2019; doubling in 2020 and again in 2021, and continues to increase. While the volume of posts during this year to date has plateaued somewhat, it is already overwhelmingly negative at 34.3% of the total, compared to 13.2% positive.

This split is also more weighted towards the negative compared to all industry sectors, which tend to receive roughly an even split in sentiment on social media. In the past month, for instance, 26% positive, 30% negative.

In construction positive coverage tends to come, unsurprisingly, from company-owned social media accounts posting their own ‘news’ about technological developments, such as sustainable materials and new environment policies.

Unicepta UK’s managing director, Tom Marshall. Photo: Unicepta

Meanwhile negativity often comes from individuals or pressure groups opposing local construction projects, frequently citing objections, such as emissions, as a counterpoint to the creation of structures that claim ecological credentials.

Typically, negative sentiment is directed less towards suppliers and companies and more towards planners and legislators, such as local authorities or government departments.

Construction businesses considering how best to approach ESG also need to recognise that it can encompass many disparate topics, each of which carries its own risk from a communications perspective.

These include but are not limited to: the ecological impact of construction; local community resistance; supply chain issues, such as materials production and the welfare of workers; welfare of on-site employees; carbon emissions and resource consumption during and after construction is complete, plus equally important but non-construction-related issues such as gender, ethnic and earnings equality.

Managing ESG communications

Construction companies must keep sight of consumer and industry conversations around all these topics and consider how their own ESG strategies and cultural values reflect the consumer debate and bear in mind the potential for any ESG issue to be at the centre of toxic social media debate.

In turn, this means we’ve seen a shift in how ESG is managed by corporate comms teams. Corporates have moved ESG issues from niche to front and centre as business leaders increasingly understand the reputational risk attached to them and the potential threat to business performance, comparable to more established risk management areas such as data vulnerability or financial security.

To help clients navigate the ESG minefield for construction, we advise them to be prepared for negative social media, particularly in the face of projects likely to be controversial from the outset – HS2 in the UK, the construction of a high-speed rail link connecting London to the North West of England, is a good example.

They can do this by:

  • Measuring the impact of social and traditional media discussion around any risk topics for their business in real time: speed is vital
  • Using data to pick their battles. On social media, spending time responding to the right people maximises the impact of messaging
  • Preparing top-level stakeholders to comment directly on challenging topics and to OK crisis responses quickly
  • Being honest. Over-inflating ESG messaging will create problems at a later date. Also, be prepared to have to prove claims to your stakeholders and the wider public
  • Harnessing employee advocacy – an extremely powerful and convincing tool for ESG topics and carries a lot of credibility

For the construction sector, we believe the medium- and long-term winners of the hearts and minds of stakeholders and the public will be the brands able to deftly navigate the pitfalls of today’s complex and various ESG agendas with integrity and transparency.

About the author

Tom Marshall is the managing director of Unicepta UK.

Unicepta is a provider of AI-powered media and marketing intelligence solutions, delivered with analytics, insights and advisory services.​

​The company’s media and audience tracking provides insights for personalised customer and company interactions.

For more information, visit www.unicepta.com

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