News Release

What were Italian firms discussing at the beginning of the pandemic?

A new study combines management science research and the methods of complex systems theory to gain insights of firms’ discussions on Twitter

Peer-Reviewed Publication

IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca

The striking effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on firms, businesses, and supply chains were evident from the very beginning: empty shelves in the supermarkets, queues outside the shops, lack of even the most ordinary and apparently insignificant goods. Much less visible and known were the effects of the pandemic on other business dimensions, for example the challenges firms had to confront and their concerns for social and environmental themes.

Combining the fields of management science and the physics of complex systems in an innovative interdisciplinary study, researchers at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca analyzed large Italian firms’ “conversations” on Twitter during the pandemic. In particular, they studied how firms dealt with the challenges and obligations posed by corporate social responsibility, the way they adapted to the “new normal” or rethought their usual business.

In the last 15 years, social media revolutionized communication. Firms increasingly opened social media pages to share advertising, marketing, and public relations strategies, also interacting with their stakeholders. Research in business and management profited from this new communication channel to analyze firms’ behavior on social networks and understand the trends and challenges firms face. 

For this study, published on Plos One, the researchers analyzed the accounts of the large Italian firms on Twitter, among the most popular social media for business communication purposes. Relying on a database containing financial and commercial information for 540,000 firms operating in Italy, the authors selected the firms that displayed a Twitter account on their websites (936 firms out of 3870, 24%). Based on one million messages posted between the 1st of March, 2020 and the 17th of November, 2020, they studied similarities in firms’ communication strategies. In particular, they built a network of firms in which any couple of nodes is connected if the corresponding accounts shared a statistically significant number of hashtags, using a methodology inspired by statistical physics. In this sense, firms’ accounts contributing to the development of the same narratives -expressed in terms of hashtags- are linked together. They then considered the relation between the hashtags used by the various accounts and their corporate social responsibility.

Not surprisingly, the most frequently used hashtag in the dataset is “covid”, which appears 4106 times, while “coronavirus” is the third, appearing 2120 times. The other most frequently used hashtags are mostly related to public utilities themes and digitalization. The analysis shows that firms’ discussions on Twitter form 13 communities of accounts, with the core of the networks formed by 5 communities, which focus on environmental sustainability, digital transformation, remote working, digitalization and safety, respectively. This highlights that firms’ dialogue on environmental, digital innovation and safety themes was central in Italian large firms’ discussion on Twitter at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, in the environmental sustainability community, among the most used hashtags, ‘sustainability’, ‘green-deal’, ‘energy’ and ‘innovation’ are found. Although the corporate social responsibility messages are a tiny percentage of the total (2%), 10 communities out of 13 use hashtags related to corporate social responsibility, with the environmental and social dimensions prevalent over the economic ones. Interestingly, communities dealing with digital innovation and safety focus more on the social dimension than the environmental one, confirming that social responsibility depends on the context. Finally, users seem to interact little on corporate social responsibility, showing that stakeholder engagement on these themes on Twitter is still scarce.

“Our paper brings several contributions” says Alessia Patuelli, Assistant Professor in Management Science at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, and first author of the paper with Fabio Saracco (currently researcher at the Institute for the Applied Calculus of the Italian National Council of Researches, Rome), Nicola Lattanzi (Full Professor of Management and Strategy at IMT) and Guido Caldarelli (Full Professor of Theoretical Physics at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice) . “First, our paper is an example of interdisciplinary research where we have integrated research on complex networks methods and management science. Second, we show that firms’ online social media data are a tool to advance management and strategy research, with common narratives naturally emerging from data and highlighting firms’ issues, challenges and responsibilities in a timely way”. 

“The study is also an example of how a new methodology, specifically complex network analysis, can be integrated in management research,” adds Saracco. “Being data-driven, it allows themes and communities to emerge without a-priori hypotheses to orientate them.”

Finally, the study contributes to the literature showing that digital innovation, environmental sustainability and safety are the main challenges the firms confronted during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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