“I love it when a plan comes together.” – John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), The A-Team
“I love it more when it falls apart.” – Yours Truly.
The poor Washington NFL Team. Yesterday, someone at the Washington NFL team’s public relations office apparently decided that rallying the team’s fans against Senator Harry Reid and the U.S. Senate was a good idea. For those of you who aren’t aware, many people consider the Washington NFL team’s nickname to be a tad… racially insensitive.
The “Perception Hole” or “Perception Gap” occurs when your organization begins developing a negative reputation about an issue and refusing to take the time to respond to the incoming attacks. This is a situation that many organizations, large and small, will have to deal with in the future if they haven’t already. Especially in an online world where anyone with a Chromebook and a Smartphone can logically argue that they are a part of “The Media.”
Recently I’ve been talking with my friends about an idea that business guru Guy Kawasaki has been at the forefront of for many years, the idea of “product evangelism” or utilizing your biggest supporters to positively promote a product or organization (i.e. Apple’s iCabal).
Following up on this thought, you should look at how to develop your company’s/industry’s supporters into a cohesive “pack” (for lack of a better word) that is willing to support and defend your company. Non-profit coalitions have been doing this for quite a while, and businesses can learn quite a bit from these organizations. Many non-profits, if not almost all of them, have spent decades doing more with less when it comes to communications and coalition-building. What these groups lacked in financial strength, they made up for in passion, perseverance, strategy and volunteerism.
What social media tools then did was lower the bar for strong content creation by these groups. Once the bar was lowered these groups were able to produce their message cheaper and for a potentially larger audience. This content creation then works hand-in-hand with social networking to build a larger base of volunteers, or as they tend to be called in a business setting, “evangelists.”
I call this idea “Darwin’s Bulldog 2.0″. (but I didn’t create this idea, it’s been out there for a while, but I wanted to look at how to use evangelists to passionately support and bolster your organization.) A quick history lesson for y’all:
Thomas Huxley was a 19th century biologist from England. He was a fierce proponent of this burgeoning scientific theory called “evolution” at a time when evolution was still being derided by many intellectual elites in England. It was because of this devotion to his cause that he became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.”
Huxley was groomed by Darwin and for a time became the face of public debate in favor of evolution. He was known for his spirited debate about evolution with Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. After this debate he served notice to the forces of traditional orthodoxy that evolution would not be easily pushed aside. He stood in the face of this adversity for much of his career after the Wilberforce debate, giving as good as he got.
What does this have to do with public relations in the Web 2.0 world? Quite a bit actually, especially when you advocate for your position or organization.
You can see much of the same kind of fervor online today, usually in political partisans (see Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin, Daily Kos, Eschaton, etc.) since blogging entered the political realm back in the wee early 2000s.
While not all organizations or industries would need someone to vigorously defend them, as your organization moves into the social media realm, or develops a social network of allies (on Facebook or Ning, which I recommend) you can start to “feel out” if there are any of your online evangelists that could/would serve as your fervent supporters or defenders.
Trying to put together a “viral” social media campaign will not be successful without some level of separate, independent evangelism from your supporters. (see “Walmarting Across America” or the definition of “greenwashing.”) This is where working with Ning, Awareness Inc., a site like My Barack Obama, or Facebook can help with creating a community for your supporters. Giving them a chance to interact with each other, sharing and improving on ideas for your organization or product.
Suffice it to say, you will need to monitor and nurture this potentially burgeoning community. As your community grows, you’ll get opponents signing on to keep track of what your organization is doing, and potentially flaming your community and sabotaging your efforts in growing the community. You need to have a member of your social media team, probably one of your bloggers (if you have the luxury of hiring more than one person to take care of your social media creation needs) also oversee the community and interact with your evangelists in it. Check out Dell’s IdeaStorm site for ideas to build on.
It’s important that these people be organically independent of your business. You don’t want to be caught in the position of “paying” for support,” and the following blogstorm that will ensue. (see “Walmarting Across America” for an example of what not to do)
If your evangelists do work for your organization, they have to be up front about it – and then go the extra steps to prove that they mean what they advocate, and aren’t just cashing a paycheck. As long as they own up to working for the company, they aren’t disqualified for representing their company with passion.
To my PR readers out there, what do you think? Should your organization have a “bulldog,” someone who is out there passionately defending your brand? What do you think the downside is? Can they be seen as a “loose cannon” who can do more damage to your brand? Should you let one of your internal defenders speak out for you, or do you think that will cause more damage to your organization’s brand?
I love working in social media – blogging, podcasting, video work, social networking and more. All of them give you ample opportunity to interact with others. Sometime for good, and other times you’ll find you or your organization getting blasted by a blogger, content creator or just a plain old curmudgeon.
While many people in social media, a lot of whom are incredibly knowledgeable, and many communications officers feel that your organization should “rise above” any kind of crossing swords with people online who are attacking you, I wish to disagree. There is a line in the sand where you should be willing to kill any detractors with kindness (always remember to be understanding and offer the honey-laden olive branch as much as possible) but once that line is crossed you should be able to respond factually, forcefully and passionately.
Many social media peeps, especially when looking at business social media, will tell you to keep your statements and content as even-keel as possible. You never want to engage in mud throwing or flame wars. I agree with them on this, but where we might diverge a little bit is my opinion that when your organization is being attacked, possibly unfairly, by online peeps who are unwilling to look at facts, or try to skew facts to match a caricature they created to attack your organization. Then these are the times when you will need to stand up, use the facts as your sword and shield, and call out your detractors.
This isn’t an open call to start flame wars and a rousing round of “nanny nanny boo boo.” Keep your responses slightly snarky (maybe a little more. Remember that you want to keep a little bit of a bite to them). They need to be classy, but sharp as a razor’s edge. You want to remind your opposition that if they want to misquote you, or tweak facts to match a false claim, that you are going to repeatedly respond by throwing high and inside.
Look at how various political campaigns ran their social media outlets during the 2008 and upcoming 2010 campaigns. They brought in bloggers who already had followers, but more importantly were passionate about their candidate’s stands (or, let’s be honest, became passionate about their positions once they started receiving a check) and were willing to stand up for them. In addition, Barack Obama’s campaign built online tools from scratch to help foster their community of supporters.
Balancing the Playing Field
If your organization is going to have “what it takes” to respond to online attacks this way, you need to have a CEO who has the spine to understand that for a short while, the attacks might intensify as your opposition tries to determine how far you will go before folding. In order for this to work, you have to be willing to repeatedly defend your position with this idea of “classy passion.” Again, humor is one of your best weapons here.
Look at what the Obama White House is doing right now with FOX News, they are repeatedly responding to FOX News when they believe facts are in error. For a while the peeps on FOX News were calling it the “War on Fox,” or some such thing.
There used to be a saying that you never go to war with people who buy ink by the barrel or tape by the yard. Meaning it was never in your best interest to cross swords with people who run the media, because they can come after you day after day for any perceived slight. That used to be true, but with the advances in social media, social networking (for audience building) and online communications you suddenly have the tools to create your own media outlet to respond, “balancing the playing field” more in your favor.
Being the old rugger I am, I’ll leave you with this analogy. While you want to play cleanly as much as possible, and give people the benefit of the doubt, I’ve found that one of the best ways to stop someone from throwing punches in the ruck is a good, old-fashioned cleat rake every so often.