Social media are increasingly being used by leading international businesses to enter into dialogue with their critics as well as their supporters, according to a new report produced by corporate communications practice BergHind Joseph.

BergHind Joseph reviewed the corporate websites of the top 100 companies in the Fortune Global 500 to identify how the largest, best-resourced companies are using the web to communicate with their increasingly critical and demanding worldwide audiences.

The study found evidence of global companies' willingness to break with the traditional “command and control” approach to corporate communication and become more open to dialogue through social media and other online channels.

According to Roger Burgess, knowledge director of BergHindJoseph, "Social media and the internet have levelled the playing field for people who are critical of corporate policies and behavior. Anyone who can operate a keyboard can now gain worldwide attention for their views, leaving companies with a choice: do they engage and put their own views forward alongside those of the critics, or do they leave the field to their adversaries?

“We were surprised to find that—although they are still in a minority—many global companies are opening up to online dialogue."

The consultancy found that a significant number of corporate websites now contain links to 'official' social media channels. In mid-March 2011, the count was: Facebook pages - 28 percent; Twitter - 28 percent; YouTube - 20 percent; Flickr - 8 percent; LinkedIn - 6 percent. Many companies also operate microsites containing blogs and social media links, and there are long-standing online communities on some dot-com sites, most of them operated by US technology companies such as IBM, HP and Verizon.

BergHind Joseph's study also explored global companies' use of corporate websites to position them as innovators or thought leaders, and as creators of social value, as well as financial value and product benefits. Global players are using their websites to show how they are addressing global challenges that concern people around the world, such as climate change, ageing populations and urbanization. Some, including Nestle, Unilever and GE, are adopting a more business-led approach to social and environmental issues, seeing corporate responsibility as a business opportunity instead of a moral obligation or reputational insurance-policy.

BergHind Joseph managing director Ian Brownhill adds, "True global leaders are using their websites as communication channels which allow them to build reputation and engage in the worldwide battle of ideas. The old model of the corporate website as the place you go to download PDFs is dead. The new generation of corporate websites is more dynamic and immediate, a place you can find out what companies are doing and thinking, and talk back to them if you have something to say."