Why mainstream media still matters more
Recent reputation storms have clarified the limitations of social media in stirring public outcry and as response channels for organisations, David Bowen says.
|Senomyx||The New York Times op ed|
|Kony 2012 YouTube||Ugandan prime minister YouTube|
|Invisible Children Facebook|
This is a tale of two crises and a campaign, and of how they played out on the internet. For anyone interested in reputation management, there are lessons aplenty.
Crisis one: PepsiCo plays it cool
Early last year a group called Children of God for Life claimed that Senomyx, a supplier to PepsiCo, was using aborted foetuses in its research and development for food flavourings. The first hostile Facebook groups were set up in May 2011. A PepsiCo shareholder then complained to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which ruled against him at the end of last month [February 2012]. That caused a spike of interest on Twitter. It died down, but was replaced by a surge of activity on PepsiCo’s Facebook page – at times it has been dominated by the issue and hostile posts are still appearing. Typical comment: “We will NO longer buy any Pepsi brands after reading this. This is just sick!”.
PepsiCo’s Facebook administrators have not responded to any of this, though they have to other posts. Neither PepsiCo nor Senomyx has touched on the subject on their websites. Instead, on 19 March PepsiCo published a story that it had been ‘named among the world’s most ethical companies for the sixth consecutive year’. The foetus story has not been picked up by mainstream media.
Crisis two: Goldman Sachs follows the headlines
Last Wednesday [14 March] Greg Smith, a senior manager at Goldman Sachs in London, wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times that layered scorn on the way the company was run, and announced he was resigning. The environment in the bank, he said, was toxic. When the paper was published at about 3am New York time the story immediately hit the news headlines in Europe. Twitter lit up with it and the story spread around the social media world. It did not, however, get on to Goldman Sachs’ social channels, because it does not have any. A letter from its bosses to the staff was published on Bloomberg early afternoon in New York and a banner pointing to the letter appeared soon followed on the gs.com home page – about 12 hours after the original publication.
Alexa, the traffic-tracking site, shows a spike of traffic to gs.com on 14 March, to the highest level of the year and more than twice the level of a week before, followed by a sharp decline over the next three days. Twitter comments have continued to flow, however, with most in the anti-Goldman camp. The mainstream press has jumped in, too, with a mix of views.
The campaign: Lord’s Resistance Army is counterattacked
On 5 March, an organisation called Invisible Children launched a video, Kony 2012 , aimed at raising the profile – and notoriety – of Joseph Kony, the head of the Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The professionally produced video featured its director and Invisible Children’s co-founder, Jason Russell, and showed how the LRA recruited and brutalised child soldiers. By 20 March it had been viewed 83.7 million times on YouTube and 17.4 million times on Vimeo, making it the most successful viral video ever. It was heavily shared on Facebook, particularly by teenagers. On 20 March, Time magazine’s cover story was ‘Hunting Joseph #Kony’. However, by then a backlash was under way, with the Ugandan prime minister appearing on a critical YouTube video and others piling in to denounce the film as inaccurate.
A search for ‘Kony 2012’ on YouTube now produces a raft of ‘anti’ videos as well as the original film. One shows Mr Russell naked and shouting in San Diego last week; this has been viewed 1.2 million times. Invisible Children’s Facebook page has a mix of supportive and critical comments. So this too has turned into a crisis; not so much for Joseph Kony as for Jason Russell.
Messages for media users
Message one: YouTube Bowen Craggs classifies reputation risks from different channels in three ways: credibility, longevity and viral power. YouTube can score highly on all three, which is why it can be the most powerful channel on the internet. The Kony 2012 story reinforces this, though with a twist. The film went ultra-viral through YouTube’s own sharing mechanism and the other social networks. It will have longevity – once on YouTube, it stays on YouTube. Where it seems to be falling down is credibility: interesting that the Ugandan prime minister used the same medium to rubbish the film. The initial warmth towards Invisible Children seems to have evaporated, with alarming results for its co-founder. So, yes, YouTube can be very powerful (or dangerous), but it can also be countered effectively.
Message two: content If there is a single ‘thing’ that be shared, it is much more likely to take off – the Kony video, Greg Smith’s piece. The PepsiCo story has had little traction on Twitter because, apart from the SEC finding, there is nothing except outrage that can be shared.
Message three: timescale Twitter and Facebook are both reactive, but on different timescales. Twitter responded very fast to the Greg Smith letter and the SEC announcement but in both instances traffic soon died down. Facebook interest in the PepsiCo story was much slower to get going, but by two weeks after the announcement was causing real problems for the company on its Facebook page. Twitter is a jumpy puppy that gets bored easily; Facebook is a lumbering but persistent Great Dane.
Message four: relative power Does timescale mean Facebook is more influential than Twitter? No, rather the opposite. First, Twitter is all about viral power and can spread stories at astonishing rate – ‘retweeting’ and ‘trending’ are two of the more unlikely words to make it into everyday speech recently. Facebook allows sharing, but privately – it cannot be observed, and people are less likely to jump on a bandwagon they cannot see.
Second, Twitter is more of a professional tool. Journalists were frantically retweeting the Smith letter, not because it would help them professionally (they had already been scooped by the old-fashioned press), but because it is their favourite medium. By contrast, Facebook is for ‘normal people’: the PepsiCo page gives us a view into Middle America not Media America. And journalists are by nature spreaders and sharers – average Americans just want to get things off their chests.
Message five: benign neglect From a company’s viewpoint, Facebook should not be that dangerous. The foetus story is confined pretty much to one site – PepsiCo’s Facebook page – so people who have not been there will not see it. The danger comes if it spreads to other channels, as the Nestlé-Greenpeace spat did in 2010. But this becomes less likely as social media itself becomes less of a news story. PepsiCo’s failure to respond on its Facebook page may be wise – even though it looks inept – because it is not giving journalists meat to feed a story.
Message six: lose Facebook Does this mean companies should have Facebook pages to attract and concentrate criticism, in the hope that it will then be forgotten? I’m sceptical. What would Middle America have done had PepsiCo not had a Facebook page? My guess is, not a lot. Similarly, could Goldman Sachs have used its own Facebook page? I can’t see how.
Message seven: the official voice Goldman Sachs must have done the right thing (in its own terms) by crafting a careful letter to counter Mr Smith’s article, and posting a prominent link to it on the home page of its website. The corporate website is the official and credible repository of the company line. Not a slightly frivolous channel that belongs to someone else.
Message eight: quick response Did Goldman do the right thing quickly enough? Twelve hours must seem like greased lighting to a corporate lawyer, but would it have made much difference if it had done it in half the time? If Twitter is the judge, the answer is no: what Twitter links there were to the chairman’s letter were to Bloomberg rather than to gs.com. But taking the way traffic to the site spiked on 14 March, then fell off sharply, the answer must be yes. Alexa does not give intra-day figures, but Goldman Sachs’ own analytics will tell it how many people it missed by not getting the letter up sooner. Goldman’s site is set up mainly to sell the company to potential jobseekers – exactly the people Mr Smith would have most deterred.
To get the sort of reactive speed they need, companies should have an online reputation team to respond to crises such as these. They must be ready to spring into action at 3am – or any other time. I don’t know any that do.
Message nine: mainstream supremacy The most influential people in the world may theoretically understand the power of the internet but they get their opinions from newspapers, television, radio and their peers. Nestlé got into trouble over its Facebook page not because it was on Facebook but because it was picked up by the newspapers. For the moment at least, mainstream media still rules – the internet is a connector and a back-up. It’s important not to forget that.
First published on 21 March, 2012