Archive for the ‘Social Media’ Category

Data Exhaust

May 21, 2012

The initial public offering of Facebook last week has prompted discussion of how the company will  justify its behemoth stock market valuation over the long term.  In a canny, but apparently unrelated move, GM announced that it no longer considered the cost of advertising on Facebook justifiable.  The piquancy of this announcement was muted somewhat when the auto manufacturer also disclosed that it would not be advertising on the 20123 Superbowl but the question nonetheless remains: why would hundreds of millions of people voluntarily surrender their right of ownership in their own data production to Mark Zuckerberg?  Daily, exabytes of so-called data exhaust stream out of the tailpipe of human interaction to be sold to advertisers in a bizarre form of metaphysical carbon capture.  Is it conceivable that individuals will some day be able to extract  a fee from Facebook for the right to monetize their emotional waste?  Or will we see the establishment of a Facebook-type utility in which users agree to mutually pool their data exhaust and sell it directly to advertisers, effectively dis-intermediating MZ?  Arguably, managing their data exhaust is something people are willing to job out to Facebook for now, but it  might take only a few highly visible data outrages for them to change their minds.  Facebook and its advertisers will need to be more vigilant than they have been so far to ensure that this data exhaust doesn’t create a smog of privacy violations that people refuse to tolerate.  Perhaps, even today, someone somewhere is writing the data equivalent of “Silent Spring.”


Good Morning, Data Subject #21984756

September 26, 2011

The Wall Street Journal has laudably made a big deal of data privacy over the past year, particularly with respect to super cookies and other tracking software.  Today’s edition carries Julia Angwin’s story about the rise of the chief privacy officer, citing GE and HP among the usual suspects leading in this new field.  Are IP addresses and device identifiers personal data?  The FTC isn’t sure yet but European governments have taken the lead in trying to protect citizens’ private data, forcing global companies to look closely at their practices in this area.

To our eyes, this is another area in which companies can create reputation-building power by embracing high standards for personal data use, transparency about their practices and easy to use problem/resolution pathways.  Appointing a chief privacy officer is not a bad place to start.  As Scott Taylor, HP’s CPO, puts it: “if you think about the delivery of this project, is there anything that might surprise the data subject?”  That’s a good place to start.

Tempest in a Taco

February 1, 2011

With its highly public response to a lawsuit about the beef content of its fillings, Taco Bell has provided another opportunity for us to observe reputation management in action in today’s social media environment.  With its “Thank You for Suing Us” advertising campaign, Taco Bell has taken the offensive in both MSM and digital media to make the point that its beef fillings are more than 80 percent beef.  Both in tone of voice and proactive stance, Taco Bell is trying to find the sweet spot that represents confidence, transparency and intimacy in the digital age.

Taco Bell may or may not succeed in rallying its loyalists by this campaign but they are more likely to succeed than Nestle that initially reacted to the Green Peace Kit Kat campaign by scolding the NGO for copyright infringement.  Public outrage caused them to back down quickly, but we believe more and more companies will find the right tone of voice defending themselves in the social media era.  This is healthy experimentation that will provide insights for reputation management across the industry spectrum.

Fuss About Microbes

December 14, 2010

Just when we were wondering how to make use of the information that a bacterium GFAJ-1 could substitute arsenic for phosphorus in many important molecules in its body, it turns out there’s a thundering dispute in the blogosphere about the validity of the study about the critter.  NASA’s response to critics of its study, as reported in today’s Science Times was to state that it “wouldn’t debate science with bloggers and would stick to peer-reviewed literature.”

This dispute and NASA’s response struck us as a perfect illustration of the now flawed distinction between bloggers and “real experts.”  It is a distinction we used to make too, arguing that responding to bloggers was like arguing with a drunk at a bar.  That condescending view has long since been blown away as serious political and academic discussion has shifted to the convenient high-speed debating chamber which is the World Wide Web.

At this stage in the cycle, the most expert and informed critics of your organization almost certainly have a blog presence and to ignore them because they are “bloggers” is simply leaving unanswered questions out in the open.  Are there still bomb-throwers among the bloggerati?  Yes, but you will know who they are and your fans will do much of the arguing for you.

To be fair, the authors of the paper themselves, according to the New York Times are putting together an FAQ which they plan eventually to post online.  As for peer review?  As one of the blogger critics, a zoologist from the University of British Columbia,  says: “We are the peers.”

Wanted: Social Capitalists

November 1, 2010

Social Network consultant Valdis Krebs plays along with Brian Lehrer on NPR today to create a “Six Degrees of Separation” game for Andrew Cuomo and Carl Paladino, each striving to win New York’s gubernatorial race.  It features the usual political figures, both foreground and background, lobbyists and campaign consultants.  This kind of social network analysis has been used in  numerous ways, such as mapping the relationships between senators, lobbyists and corporations with respect to health reform.

Digging a little into the social capital theories of Ron Burt at the University of Chicago we find useful measures of power relationships in social networks such as “betweenness” and “closeness.”  We also learn that most networks, left to their own devices, develop a high degree of homogeneity — more connections between more of the same kind of people.  Undiversified networks such as these offer none of the supposed benefits of social networks, such as innovation and cross-fertilization of ideas that come from unanticipated inputs.  In order to create these benefits, social networks need to be actively managed and nourished.

It strikes us that fostering these networks is one of  the critical contributions of the corporate communications function in the 21st century.  In an environment of intense flux and the disappearance of boundaries between industry sectors and functions, having a strategy to build your company’s social capital is no longer a luxury.  Wherever new threats emerge, we need fresh and diverse connections to understand and manage them.  New opportunities can only be seized when the diversity of our corporate networks alerts us to them.

The good news is that social media make the work of measuring your social capital and finding new potential connections easier than ever before.  The bad news is that building social capital is time and resource intensive.  Since some things don’t change, though, we will need new titles to describe our social network experts.  We think Senior Vice President for Social Capitalism has a nice ring to it.

Return of the No Comment?

September 15, 2010

A completely unscientific study of The New York Times this week suggests that we are seeing the resurgence of the corporate “no comment.”  In the era of corporate tweeting, official FB pages and CEO YouTube channels, this is a somewhat unexpected development.  Thinking through some possible reasons, we posit:

a) After two years of economic woes and corporate scandals, communicators are just tired.

b) Two decades into being told never to say “no comment” company spokespeople are enjoying a brief flirtation with the illicit.

c) Everyone got sick of corporate transparency at the same time.

d) The 24 hour webcam of the BP crisis room encouraged people to metaphorically turn off the lights.

e) There are too few business reporters left working so there’s no one to follow up a “no comment” with a gotcha story.

We will continue to monitor this development to see if it is a development.  We encourage our spokespeople readers  to try out other variants:  “I have nothing to say” — “I refuse to answer that question” — I don’t need to tell you anything” — “none of your business.”

Opacity Redux

July 29, 2010

Two separate but parallel discussions recently have caused us to revisit the issue of transparency and its bad-tempered twin, opacity.  Back in the early 2000s, we helped pioneer something called the Opacity Index which measured the extent to which a country’s sovereign borrowing costs and levels of foreign direct investment were impacted by levels of corruption, regulatory capriciousness, administrative speed, judicial transparency and a number of other factors.  In this index, opacity was bad and transparency good.  Similarly, in the fraught field of crisis communications,  the gold standard of crisis response has been ever higher levels of transparency.  Stakeholders, in this theory, are kinder to companies that are quickly and comprehensively disclosive.  And then we looked at Apple and BP.

In response to early complaints about signal strength and dropped calls with its latest IPhone, Apple was at first unresponsive, then petulant, before finally offering customers a “bumper” to put around their phone.  BP, by contrast, almost instantly flew its CEO to the Gulf, and while there have been many spoken gaffes, it has apparently been completely transparent and disclosive throughout the long unfolding of  the well capping process.  In spite of its sour behavior, Apple has sold boatloads of the new phone.  In spite of its attempts to be transparent in real-time, BP’s reputation continues to sink to new lows.

We are not suggesting a return to the evasive stonewalling at Three Mile Island in the 1970s, but is there, in fact, a lesson about corporate transparency to be learned from the Apple/BP contrast?  We’re not quite sure what it is, but it is telling that some of the most unfortunate moments for BP involved comments from Hayward and Svanberg about their feelings and the least appealing aspect to the IPhone story was the emotional disdain expressed by Steve Jobs for the media.  In the era of social networking, corporations are striving to find a voice that suits the intimacy and informality of the new medium.  This is proving more difficult than some had hoped.  Having a strong brand helps, but when the chips are down, people want corporations to get things right, not express their feelings.  The “get it” factor may be over-rated.

Bandwidth in the Crack Pipe

June 7, 2010

A few weeks ago, during a discussion of online media habits, my student Linabel asked: “so is social media addictive like nicotine?”  Now The New York Times tells us why this is: a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats (eat apple, run from bear) creates a “dopamine squirt” that researchers say can be addictive.  In other words, the impulse to interrupt any activity to check an incoming email, text message, FB post is, in fact, anthropologically hard-wired.

This particular meme — the neurological dangers of the Internet — is currently tanning itself in the early summer sun, as Nick Carr “(Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) prepares the world for his new book — “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”  The question is not whether people are being distracted by the constant interruptions the Internet enables (they clearly are) but what we should be doing about it.  Ideally, the answer is not reducing all communications to the length of Tweets, since we do still have things to talk about that require a more intense, more extended focus.

16th and 17th century works of theology had thumbnail summaries of the contents of the page in the outer margins, which definitely helped when the content was double predestination.  Maybe the Web 2.0 version is little messages like SMS alerts that interrupt you while you’re reading that recap the previous chapter or contain a short video of the author reminding you of the definition of credit default swaps.  Or how about hyperlinks that don’t actually go anywhere but deliver a pop quiz on the contents of the page?

We are all susceptible to the pleasures of these dopamine squirts.  Short of tying ourselves to the mast like Ulysses to resist the song of the Sirens, we’ll have to come up with some tricks to say focused.  But let’s not get too carried away about the extent of these dangers.  The first edition of Dr. Spock had a chapter on the perils of “too much radio.”

Who Owns Social Media?

May 18, 2010

This question came up last Tuesday at a launch briefing for our new book and then a friend sent me a Mashable article on the same subject.  It’s an important question because, as the article points out, there are social media activities going on in the marketing, customer service, public relations, investor  relations and lots of other functional departments in companies.  So, to parse this out, we probably need to answer some core questions: is there a central skill set called “social media” requiring functional specialists whether tweets or fan pages are being used for customer service or investor relations, recruitment  or some other thing?  Does social media consist of “places” that, while shared by different functions, need to be managed like real estate?  To the extent that corporate social media places carry independent content, do they need a gatekeeper?  Is being responsible for social media like or unlike deciding what goes on the company website?

This handful of the possible questions already demonstrates the organizational complexity of integrated social media use.  We think that a hybrid model might well work best, in which public relations is responsible for the real estate, but a cross-functional team of all the departments using social media for some purpose constitutes a consultative council.  In this model, there are social media specialists in marketing or HR who are managed by their own function leadership.  However, they need to make sure that public relations is kept abreast of their social media activities and plans.  Does public relations get to veto a social media plan hatched in marketing?  Probably not in most companies we’re familiar with, but as the party responsible to management for the real estate, they should be entitled to register strong displeasure if they feel a marketing initiative threatens the brand.

Why public relations? I won’t argue that there is a special mystique about the function that makes it especially deserving of this responsibility although some have suggested that marketing, the ancestral home of one-way communications, is not the place for social media.  I do think, however, that public relations tends to be a better place to aggregate and track activities from other functions and, certainly, public relations is on deck when a social media strategy goes pear-shaped.  As public relations is the locus, in most companies, of the monitoring of external opinion, it would also be logical to house social media, a medium mostly about listening, within that function.

Fat Lady Never Gets to Sing

May 6, 2010

Keith Craggs, of the website effectiveness firm, Bowen Craggs, recently raised an interesting question: if Nestle (in his terms) found out during its recent palm oil crisis that it didn’t really own its own Facebook page, why not just shut it down?  For those of you that missed it, Greenpeace targeted Nestle with a campaign claiming that Nestle’s purchase of palm oil was destroying the natural habitat of the orangutan.  In the course of a very active social media response to the crisis, Nestle first insisted on and then retracted a demand that opponents take down satirical caricatures of its KitKat logo.  Nestle’s tone ranged from belligerent through sardonic to apologetic but throughout the crisis it kept talking and posting on its Facebook.  In doing so, the company arguably offended against one of the cardinal rules of crisis management which is that you should starve a story of oxygen once you’ve stated your position by refraining from additional interactions that give your opponents fresh opportunities for attack.

Clearly, this classic approach runs full tilt into the brick wall of continuous engagement, a sacred principle of social media.  Leaving aside for the moment the somewhat exceptional profile of Nestle which has been reviled by certain segments of the community for decades, Keith’s comment does appear to pose a conundrum: why maintain a public space such as a Facebook page when it appears to serve principally as a free billboard for your antagonists?

We’d welcome your comments but it seems to us that the social web means that the story is never entirely over whether further episodes take place on your Facebook page or in other places.  The true believers, your fiercest opponents, will continue to talk, argue and complain about your “infamy” whether you shut down your Facebook page or not.  You need a forum to continue to point to your good deeds (or mitigation of past bad deeds) and if that elicits opposition, so be it.  The readers you are trying to impress are not the diehards but the larger middle who are interested in the issues but who are open to the idea that a corporation might behave well.  You owe it to this audience to use every means possible to tell your story and, for our money, that includes your FB page, even if that sometimes seems like a tough call.  As a Woody Allen character once said trying to sound brave — “and then I hit him in the knee with my head.”  Painful, yes, but maybe the right thing to do in the long run.