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19 July 2014

Social Media Onslaught

Tag(s): Marketing
I recently attended a seminar organised by the Digital Media Group, which is a collaboration of three Livery Companies, the Worshipful Companies of Stationers, Information Technologists and Marketors which share an interest in Digital Media. The seminar was called “Social Media Onslaught” and featured three experts on the subject, two communications consultants and a lawyer. The Group had wanted to feature an executive whose company had faced a crisis exaggerated by Social Media but unsurprisingly was unsuccessful in persuading anyone to reveal all. Instead our three speakers told us of their observations of such crises.

The tsunami like effect of an issue picked up by the media and amplified massively by social media is becoming a nightmare for many Corporate Boards. The challenge to companies of reputation management and crisis management arising in the digital world is not conventional corporate crisis management.

Jonathan Chandler of Reputation Inc and a member of the Guild of PR Practitioners said that there is pressure on the traditional ways of working. The terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon took one hour to be reported by the police but was out on social media networks in less than two minutes. The reasons why we communicate have not changed but the velocity and volume of such communication have. When there is a major system failure as with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill social media commentators are merciless. The way in which companies respond is critical. O² service failed but they dealt with it with humility and humour and were not severely punished. Blackberry experienced similar problems and reacted arrogantly thus contributing to their already severe decline.  There is something of a David and Goliath zeitgeist here as when Greenpeace faked a Shell campaign which got four million page views and 810,000 views on YouTube. A clash of cultures can arise as when Heineken were accused of promoting dog fighting because one of its posters appeared in a venue in Mongolia.

Alison Canning, an experienced PR professional who used to run Burson-Marsteller in London and then Edelman before founding her own company spoke of the old model of Listen-engage-adapt which worked for companies like Nike and Reebok when they faced allegations of buying from suppliers who employed child labour. But companies like Enron who adopted a siege mentality and failed to adapt their behaviours would themselves fail. Transformation in behaviours associated with crisis is now the norm but Alison thinks this predated Social Media. The Generation X consumers who question everything are now in late middle age.  However, the internet has created an information democracy and Generation Y consumers see it as both their right and responsibility to be policemen of corporate behaviour. Every business must connect to the needs and expectations of socialising.

The brand is no longer about the logo and the advertising but is the essence of the relationship with the consumer. So we have reached the endpoint of Listen-engage-adapt as a model. The first line of defence must be the brand. Social media is transformational but the rules of engagement are the same.

Robert Bond, a partner in the law firm Speechly Bircham, asked us some scary questions. When you post a message, with whom are you sharing it? The public, the CIA, even only the CIA? HMV managed to tweet a mass firing. Robert thinks we should plan for the worst as in Business Continuity or Product Recall. You need to:
  • Assume that the worst will happen
  • Plan and prepare to prevent this
  • Train all staff and contractors
  • Have a crisis management plan
  • Act at once
  • Bring in PR, Legal and Insurance management
  • Understand how the law may apply
Above all training is mandatory as a defence in law. Planning and preparation are desirable but training is critical.
When I previously blogged on social media (see my blog Is social media a fad? 24th September 2011 tag Marketing) I admitted to be a light user of social media and a sceptic about its usefulness as a marketing tool and therefore its long-term viability as a business proposition. Clearly I recognise that it has achieved great influence but my previous concerns remain and particularly about the social consequences of social media. Last year The Economist reported on a study published by the Public Library of Science, conducted by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and Philippe Verduyn of Leuven University in Belgium.[i] This shows that the more someone uses Facebook, the less satisfied he is with life.

Previous investigations had found that Facebook is associated with jealousy, social tension, isolation and depression. But these studies had all been snapshots in time and so risked confusing correlation with causation: perhaps those who spend more time on social media experience more negative emotions in the first place. The study by Dr Kross and Dr Verduyn is the first to follow Facebook users over an extended period and track how their emotions change. They recruited 82 Facebook users aged in their late teens or early 20s who reported on their direct social activity as well as social media activity five times a day over two weeks. The more a volunteer used Facebook in the period between two questionnaires, the worse he reported feeling. By contrast there was a positive association between the amount of direct social contact he had. There was no difference between genders. Dr Kross and Dr Verduyn conclude that rather than enhancing well-being, Facebook undermines it.

Another larger study of 584 users of Facebook in Germany aged mostly in their 20s found that the most common emotion aroused by using Facebook is envy. "Endlessly comparing themselves with peers who have doctored their photographs, amplified their achievements and plagiarised their bon mots can leave Facebook's users more than a little green-eyed. Real-life encounters, by contrast, are more WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).” To me this seems obvious. Perhaps older users such as some of the readers of this blog are more able to discern between the truth and the bogus. But young people are more vulnerable and should be socialising in the real world. Other research I have seen shows that many young people feel unable to conduct proper conversations because nearly all of their social interaction is online.

Robert Bond told us how he has been invited to go into schools and help young people deal with the dangers on the internet. In one school he was horrified to learn that most members of a class aged 8 had Facebook accounts. As you’re supposed to be at least 13 he asked them how they had got an account. Many had asked an older sibling to do it for them. Some had even persuaded their parents to do it for them. Robert discussed this with the Head teacher who was equally horrified. Robert offered to conduct a teach-in with parents. The Head offered this to parents and got no interest.

There is a related problem with email. A study by researchers at Loughborough University found “email stress”, caused by staff having too many digital messages to deal with, is leading to increased health problems and reduced efficiency.[ii]  Professor Tom Jackson of Loughborough University, who has been dubbed “Mr Email” due to his research into information technology, studied staff working in a government department. He found a link between the volume of emails people had to deal with and increased blood pressure, raised heart rates and the levels of stress-related hormone cortisol. The more emails people had to handle, the less efficient they became. His paper concludes: “Long-term short sharp increases such as this can lead to chronic health conditions such as hypertension, thyroid disease, heart failure and coronary artery disease.” He might have added cancer as cancer can develop from stress.

[i] Facebook is bad for you. Get a life! The Economist 17th August, 2013
[ii] Marulanda-Carter, L and Jackson, TW (2012) Effects of e-mail addiction and interruptions on employees, Journal of Systems and Information Technology, 14(1), pp.82-94, ISSN: 1328-7265. DOI: 10.1108/13287261211221146.

Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved

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