As the science fiction writer Douglas Adams pointed out, social media is not new. Most communication for a lot of people for much of history has been social. A small number of countries, for about a century, have been victims of the hideous diversion of mass media.
Mass media is less than a century old. Newspapers a hundred years ago were mostly local and dedicated several pages to readers’ letters. Film was in its infancy. The idea that you could broadcast a message at someone instead of engaging them in conversation would have seemed ridiculous.
In the 19th century, all media and entertainment were social. If you heard Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or had seen the Cincinnati Red Stockings play their perfect season, you would have needed to be there. They would have heard your applause, and while you were applauding, others would be shouting abuse.
In much of the world, communication has always remained two-way and social. To sell a new fertilizer in India, you train the head salesperson and they train others. It is just like using brand ambassadors on Facebook. To those of us who grew up in the days when 106 million people tuned into the final episode of MASH, social media seems foreign and new, but they are nothing of the sort.
Most practitioners are accustomed to the idea that you can control the message. They believe that a brand – a reputation – is whatever they say it is. But your reputation exists in the minds of other people. You do not determine what they think of you. That’s a collaborative process in which you are, at best, one influencer among many.
The old-world advertising mindset in which you broadcast messages at people does not translate into the renewed world of social interaction. Think here of the New York Police Department’s recent blunder with the #MyNYPD hashtag.
By inviting people to share photos of the police in action, they gave critics a platform. This is a brandjack that should’ve been anticipated. The NYPD always had critics and some photos of police officers were deeply embarrassing. One showed several police officers pinning down a black suspect at a time of already heightened racial tensions. Of course, the nature of the NYPD’s business is that it also has "customers," who are grateful for its work. That’s not always the case with CPG brands.
The selection of such brands is often functional and transactional. With McDonald’s, for example, it is buy, eat, leave. While the brand’s many critics share an agenda and will share each other’s attacks on the brand, few customers will tweet about an especially satisfying burger, and even fewer will retweet someone else’s experience.
Even when your customers outnumber critics many times over, it is critics who are motivated and have a common interest in sharing each other’s content. They tap into what I call the "aggregation brandjack," when disparate people with little in common – except a dissatisfaction with your brand – come together around a blog or hashtag to undermine your reputation.
Opening your doors in this way is dangerous. Sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting "I can’t hear you" is worse. Real engagement involves much more than just creating a hashtag. It involves genuinely listening to your critics and may involve training staff to communicate in appropriate ways on social media.
Obligations of confidentiality, and with regard to market sensitive information continue to exist, but staff need a policy they can see as permission to engage outside these restricted areas.
Businesses can engage in constructive ways, but people need a reason to respond. Competition can be valuable, but sometimes all that is required is light humor. Taco Bell’s effort in which its product is endorsed by people called Ronald McDonald is a fun way of engaging people.
Instincts developed for the world of mass media are all wrong. We can’t just yell our messages at people any more. As campaigners and brandjackers develop new ways of setting the agenda, we need different ways to respond. NGOs and empowered customers have turned power structures upside down. Your response has to be built on training internal brand ambassadors. You will need to turn your organization inside out.
Quentin Langley is the author of Brandjack: How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates and what to do about it