A powerful social media may engulf your organisation. How do you react?
What if your company fell victim to a social media campaign started by one of the many NGOs or cybergroups, turning their attention on you and your company? What if your company was portrayed and perceived as environmentally hazardous or irresponsible in the third world, if you were accused of exploiting child labour or killing endangered species?
Fables and fabricated issues may become truths over night and create major problems for your company.
The effects of let’s say a two-day blockade of a big retail chain across the UK can be tremendously costly. How can companies prepare for a 1 million strong force of Internet users taking to the streets to influence the company?
Sales will suffer. Brands will weaken. License to operate will be questioned. Not only profit but also survival might be at stake due to an explosion of activity in just one or a few days – or hours.
Recently, in just two days organizers managed to launch a massive protest demonstration against the FARC-guerrilla across Latin America through the Facebook community.
With the same speed a Swedish 16 year old student organized an anti street violence demonstration with tens of thousands of people in the Centre of Stockholm in a day. Any teen, any organization and any NGO can within hours create a group strong and focused enough to affect even a major corporation.
We have all heard that the Arab spring was mainly coordinated by Twitter and Facebook.
These are just a few but very noticeable examples of movements on the Internet that represent this new type of groups, official and non, with instant rise, instant action and – sometimes – instant demise.
But speed and reach might not be the most significant characteristics of these groups and understanding their impact, their emotional and spontaneous nature is vital. In many cases these groups can instantly rally people and team up with like-minded all over the world, acting on strong emotions but very little information.
In pre-social media times, politicians and corporations got used to dealing with organised movements, with missions, statutes and card-carrying members holding physical meetings. With the impact of modern media, networks have become more anarchical, gaining a quasi-autonomous status and therefore much more difficult to monitor.
Today, the @-working is replacing old-fashioned networking. Interest groups, however small and narrowly defined, can attract many followers just trough the accessibility of the Internet and the instantaneous decision making of other devoted Internet user.
For the most part these new cyber communities are not led by cranks, but by normal people, like you and I. A spontaneous gathering may be started by your neighbour’s daughter, using social media to channel a group of like-minded individuals onto a specific topic.
In most cases we have seen such groups acting for “good” causes. But what if one of these spontaneous campaigns targeted your organization, how would you measure up to this threat?
The Rules of the Game
Rule #1: Do what is right. Be a decent company. Be a good corporate citizen. But – as when the green wave swept Europe in the 80’s – do not pretend you are better that you really are.
But this will not be the end of story. Too good is seldom the ideal. It might be too good to be true or raise expectations to unsustainable levels.
Rule #2: Connect. Monitor, learn and live this new reality. You need to reduce the initial sense of panic when facing the unknown if you suddenly become the target.
You will need an early warning system with smart agents on the net instantly checking blogs and groups on Facebook and more. You will need in debt business intelligence. Check “new” sources.
Conventional pressure groups allowed themselves to be placated through “stakeholder dialogue”, acting within a clear hierarchical structure. However, in the new world of cyber protest you might not be able to easily identify a leader.
Rule #3: Be prepared. Critically think, as you would imagine cybergroup members would reason. What are your week points? Do the scenarios planning you should have done long ago, anyway. Invent ways of fast information distribution via the Internet.
Make sure you have the instant channels of communication in place to your priority stakeholders. Don’t let them hijack your communication channels.
Rule #4: Be proactive. Brand building, actually trust building, is as important in these communities as in other communities where your company does business. There is no reason not to argue on blogs or discussion groups.
But be careful. Few companies – if any – are ready to interact successfully with spontaneous and seemingly unregulated cyber protests. Organizations simply don’t have the mindset or the tools. Neither do they have the freedom to take instant action since they have broader agendas and other stakeholders to take into consideration. Not to mention corporate lawyers…
We know that the Internet has long been the new powerhouse of social activity. We have seen the rise of subcultures and communities and the becoming of what can best be described as a new social reality. Hence we can foresee that in the Internet generation there will be both use and abuse of the Internet in ways so far not conceived.
The new world may be painful for companies that do not prepare and are unable to respond swiftly and strongly when needed. But it may also offer new opportunities to corporations willing to adapt, learn and participate. And it won’t go away.
Posted by Carl Thalén, a member of the Evoke PR Network