Social Media

What We Learned From An Angry Mob

Posted by Rob Rose on March 28th, 2010 at 12:00 am

Arguing for the value of the argument is a time honored tradition in professional sports.  Here's how it goes.  At some point in a game, a call goes against one of the teams.  The coach of the "wronged" team jumps up enraged (or whatever your favorite coach's facsimile of enraged is) and gets in the face of the referee.   In 99% of these cases, the coach doesn't *really* expect to get the decision overturned, nor is he really negotiating.  He's simply posturing to motivate his team, excite the crowd, or try and influence the next call.  One of the classics at this was baseball skipper Earl Weaver who (as legend has it) once screamed at an umpire "I'm going to check the rule book on that!"  The umpire replied "Here, use mine." And Weaver said "that's no good – I can't read Braille" (insert rimshot here).

You can certainly see this same phenomenon in other places as well.  From morning news programs, to cable talk-shows to some forms of marketing – pundits will often take an argumentative position just to create drama and controversy, motivate their base, and generate "ratings".  They're not *really* interested in talking through the issues of a particular disagreement.  In fact, the Onion did a hysterical piece on just this topic a couple of years ago. It's a classic.

How Do You Argue With Someone Who Isn't Trying To Be Right?

Over the last two weeks, just such a drama has played out for Nestle, Greenpeace and social media.  If you somehow missed it, the Nestle Facebook Fan page has been overwhelmed with comments by critics decrying the company for its contract with a particular Palm Oil vendor which has been associated with deforestation in the Indonesian rain forests.  Jeremiah Owyang of the Altimeter Group actually did a great summary and analysis of it.

Now, by all accounts it was Greenpeace that "started it" – with the creation of a snarky viral video (more on that in a moment).  Then, enter Nestle legal claiming trademark infringement and asking that the video be taken down.  This resulted in a fairly coordinated protest (some have called it attack) on Nestle's Fan Page.   Then, Nestle certainly didn't do itself any favors – with a few ham fisted responses.  Helpful Safety Tip to every corporate PR / Social Media Manager: deleting comments, or whipping out the "copyright/intellectual property" justifications are the social media equivalent of "let them eat cake".  

But, here's the interesting part, whether you believe them or not, Nestle did respond to the Greenpeace report by "assuring" everyone that they will not use Palm Oil produced by the vendor that Greenpeace is asserting.  Why they aren't doing this more vociferously on their Facebook Fan Page is something of a mystery.  Greenpeace then responded that their concessions "don't go nearly far enough". 

At this point, though, this doesn't really matter – the discussion has devolved into much more about "killing orangutans" and what a horrible "planet-killing" company that Nestle has always been.  In short, the coach has jumped up from the bench, and has the crowd on its feet, screaming for the ref's head.  The original infraction is almost irrelevant.

We Didn't Start The Fire...

See, here's the thing.  After reading through Jeremiah's posts – and his wonderful whiteboard post-mortemanalysis – I was struck by something.   Would doing any of that actually have helped in this case?    So, as Jeremiah actually points out – one of the options for Nestle would have been to "engage" the protesters; to ask them how they could "work on sustainability issues together".  

Now, maybe if they had done that *much* earlier, it might have helped.  But after reading so many of the comments on their page – I have to say that my best gut instinct is that this type of comment would have been derided at best – and perhaps even fanned the flames more.  Most of them don't seem interested in solving an issue – they simply want to hold up their virtual signs.

Now, I want to be clear, I'm not questioning the earnestness of Greenpeace and their supporters (although Greenpeace certainly has its own past issues).   But what does seem clear to me is that this type of "protest" and its conflagration is a big challenge for us as marketers. These types of protests (despite how they start) seem to devolve and become much more about provocation and galvanizing a base, than they do about solving a real issue. 

Let's go back to the tinderbox that started the Greenpeace vs. Nestle fire - the video.    In reading through the micro-site that Greenpeace put together – and not surprisingly found through media coverage of the event rather than the protesters themselves – there's a video that shows a bored man in an office, tearing open a KitKat Bar – and mindlessly eating (with a disgustingly large amount of blood) an Orangutan finger. I get it.  Deforestation kills Orangutans - Nestle has contract with company blamed for deforestation - ergo every time you eat a KitKat an Orangutan dies.  Subtle.      Earnest protest or emotional button-pushing.   Who knows.  The point is it doesn't matter.

All's Fair In Love And Customer Service  

As marketers, what this issue raises is the absolute critical importance of having a process and plan around our Social Media efforts.   As we put together the plans for our Social Media Marketing/CRM strategy – we've got to be prepared for these types of PR storms – whether or not they are "fair".   If we treat our social media strategy casually, we will be ill prepared for these types of events.

But my question still remains – and is one that I'm still puzzling over….

Do we have to be prepared to lose?

As Jeremiah points out – organizations will do much better if they run their social media strategy as thoughtfully as their PR Strategy.  This means placing real professionals in charge, working and training through crisis management, and developing a "measure twice cut once" strategy.   

But I wonder if, after a few more of these types of storms, we won't see corporate brands tighten up and kill off some of the social media channels.   One thing I do know (and I'm not saying this about the Nestle case in particular) is that as practitioners we are going to have to start to call bullshit on the mob as often as we do the mobbed.  Just because they're outside some company's walls with pitchforks doesn't mean they're right.  Or does it?

What say you?  

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