What a very bad week in social media teaches us about being prepared for the worst.
Wikileaks is to the Obama administration what the Pentagon Papers were to Nixon. Embarrassing, probably not ground-breaking in and of themselves, but indicative of a lack of what we all surmised was lacking in the first place.
How this much sensitive and classified information – how many cables? – were so casually copied and stolen boggles the mind. But I’m sure someone somewhere says that every time the CFO absconds with the cash or every time a spy gets away with murder. It continues to happen – both in business and in government – and that’s the point that needs our immediate attention.
As Dr. Robert Kozinets says in his recent post, “The same ability to get into people’s living rooms means they are peering into your living room, too.” Social media isn’t just about flogging your most recent blog post (sorry) or talking about your weekend on Facebook.
“Social” can quickly turn into a faceless mob that doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
At the same time, we see the equally dubious Greenpeace launching a social campaign against fashion label DKNY’s Facebook presence, offering the brand’s 200,000 plus fans page after page of anti-fur diatribe.
Both cases describe the tyranny of the minority – small groups (some comprised of only a few individuals) who mobilize in guerilla fashion to temporarily halt or otherwise embarrass the giants they face.
The lessons for those of us charged with protecting our brands are many.
Before the event, let’s agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a quarter of a million cables’ worth of cure.
The best defense is a great offense.
Build your community now. When I spoke with Rob Willington, the social media consultant who handled Senator Scott Brown’s successful campaign – a four and a half month crash course in social media activation – he emphasized that when Brown decided to make a run for “Ted Kennedy’s seat,” he already had a Facebook following of over 3,000.
Having your activists ready to go means you have a card to play when the bad guys show up.
What you say face to face is fleeting. What you write down is forever (in their inbox).
So much of this sort of advice is standard competitive intelligence hygiene. If you don’t want it in someone else’s hands, don’t put it in your next email. Go talk to someone instead, preferably face to face. But remember that storage is cheap and digital recording is easy. I can record a phone call coming in to my landline phone with the push of a button. If you call my cell phone, it’s harder to record. If you’re dealing with sensitivity, it’s ironic that your landline (“Is this line secure?”) isn’t usually the one that’s safest.
And with the ubiquity of pocket-held recording devices – like your iPhone – I can record anything we say face to face, too. I interviewed a CEO on camera several months ago and found that my recording contained a few important questions and answers that were mysteriously omitted in the final cut of the video (that I didn’t control).
Be smart when it comes to your counter-competitive intelligence hygiene. At least make it harder for the bad guys to attack you.
Use the tools that got you into trouble to get you out of trouble.
What happens when you learn the damage is done (or on the way)? Google “brand reputation,” “damage control” or “Tylenol” for observations on how to handle an unfolding disaster. Look at how the current administration is handling Wikileaks to get the flip side of best practices. But surprisingly, you’ll find these same tools that got you in trouble are often the same ones that are most credible when they come to your defense.
But beyond your own communications plan – those communications that you, personally, manage from “Brand HQ” – remember that you have something the enemy didn’t count on. Your army. And if they love you, they’ll be pretty angry, too. So engage and activate your army. The faster your people respond, the faster the bad guys realize they’ve lost.
So is social media bad after all?
I can imagine that there are a few Luddites out there thinking that they finally have the solid rationale they’ve always wanted to avoid this whole social media thing. They’d still be wrong. The enemy has better weapons than ever. And the only thing that consistently beats such enemies is having more, better friends who are willing to step up and defend you.
Strong brands – the real giant killers – surround themselves with their armies of supporters. They wrap themselves in these communities and the point where the brand ends and the community begins is blurred. Look at Herman Mashaba’s Black Like Me in South Africa – a brand “of the people” that successfully fought both the multinationals in the cosmetics markets but the apartheid system itself. Look at Spike’s favorite crafting team, the Fiskateers – a community of 6,000 passionate advocates dedicated to spreading the word. Brands like these have build both online and real world communities that are able to speak when the brand is absent.
When everyone is a supporter, it’s harder for the bad guys to made headway.