Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Response: Systems Reboot

Since James was kind enough to ask for my opinion here goes...

Vodafone are undeniably in a rough spot at the moment, whatever the figure they owe, somewhere between £1.25bn and £6bn seems to be the reckoning. They've also got similar problems in India, where they owe yet more money (around £2bn) for a very similar deal. In these times of financial austerity the public have, unsurprisingly, reacted badly to this and stores across the UK were blockaded by protesters.

My personal feelings on the issue aside, the UK example is an interesting case in point about the growing power of smart mobs, and campaigns co-ordinated via the internet. Adding a second case study to the mix, the public protests I mentioned against Scientology by Anonymous, were run in much the same way as the Vodafone protests are now, so this is not something wildly new.

Social networking in this context is a wildly useful tool, it allows people to connect across wide areas, congregate virtually around a cause, psych each other up, and deploy campaigners to best effect. Of course all of this has been possible for quite some time, so I'm always critical of articles which point out that it's "twitter what won it". Twitter is the tool of the moment, and because its easy to access journalists get confused (as they so often do) about how important it is in organising things like this.

So I would advise that any discussion of this growing trend drop the rather obsessive disussion of "tools" (Facebook/twitter/digg etc) and focus more on what is actually happening.

What we are seeing, using a military analogy, is that more people are able to volunteer their time to a loose command and control system based on the internet. I say loose because often there are very few clear 'leaders'. This isnt always the case, UK think tanks and affiliated organisations are very good at taking a leadership position on an issue and mobilising public support. Case in point, the Electoral Reform Society, who have been quite integral to some of the pro-AV demonstrations which have been going on. There are also, often, informal groups who emerge in favour, or against, a particular 'thing'.

Its also worth pointing out that the media often get confused about who 'leads' an organisation. Anonymous provides us with a good set of examples of how the media have stuggled to classify the group, particularly with Fox news' and their wonderful "hackers on steroids" piece, where they dramatically miss the fact that most people who volunteer their time to Anonymous are not 'hackers' (a term the media doesnt understand to begin with), but are rather regular people out to have fun at someone else's expense.

The power of social media in the context of protest is twofold, first it creates an easily accessible medium for people to discuss the issue, and plan action. The medium increasingly trends towards a democratic organisational structure, as people are less likely to donate their time to an autocratic leadership who demand they do certain things.

The second is that social media allows very small numbers of people to co-operate over a greater distance than ever before. Its a force multiplier. The Vodafone protests were not thousands of people pouring onto the streets and storming Vodafone HQ, but rather dozens, in a couple of dozen locations shutting down individual stores. This is much harder to organise and much more interesting in garnering media exposure.

I personally think that the Vodafone protests have, due to media confusion, and the fact it taps into the zeitgeist pretty accurately, been taken as something new and exciting, wheras what they are in fact is simply a well co-ordinated example of the sort of flash mob which has been going on for years. However this doesnt mean they arent an interesting example, since they are clearly highly sophisticated and politically motivated, two things which are relatively (i.e. in the last few years) growing more common.

Going back to the original piece James highlighed on the Westborne website I think Maurice Cousins has made a good point:
As these protests have shown, along with the on-line backlash against BP and the Greenpeace campaign against NestlĂ©, businesses can no longer afford to rely on traditional, faceless PR tactics in their wider crisis communications strategies. Instead, British businesses are going to have to become more sophisticated – like their American counterparts – and be prepared to engage with all stakeholders in non-traditional theatres such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Failure to do so will lead to more than just a damaged reputation, but ultimately a loss of business.
He's absolutely right of course. These issues can be nipped in the bud much better if you are actually engaging with the people causing you problems, but you have to have people 'on the ground' so to speak in order to achieve it. Going onto the news and saying its all an 'urban myth' whilst admitting that you actually did withold £1.5bn is not the way to deal with it.

They could have changed the agenda substantially if they'd been willing or indeed able, to see the protests coming, and engage more directly with the emerging network at an early stage. Instead they chose the usual approach of going through old media and trying to slowly push back against the rumours which were generating discontent.

To deal with situations like this you need to be:
Strong: And by this I mean well organised, get your facts straight, own up where you have to, but get a good story in place and get it out there, to everyone, as much and as often as you can.

Agile: You've got to be able to turn on a dime, its no good if your leadership committee, which only meets on a thursday , is the one which signs off all your activity. You've got to have a war room style setup which can see the threat and take action, then and there.

Distributed: Tough for a big company, but an inevitable part of whats necessary. Act like the protesters, have people in place whose job it is to speak to these new networks, at the point of emergance, not when things kick off and you can't open your stores. Meet them at their level.
Bottom line, you can't get away with sitting in your ivory tower, talking to the same old journalists, and think anyone will care. This is a new world, old media is dead, and the old ways of protesting were dying years ago, something you only just noticed.
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