How corporate discourse can be deconstructed in a social media crisis: my PhD thesis is more actual than ever

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Crisis, Crisis management, Data mining, Online Reputation, Social media, Strategy, Trust

I can see how the lessons that I learned with my PhD thesis, presented in the end of 2015, is now more actual and necessary than ever. The key themes of the thesis were crisis management, social media, branding and online reputation management, which I approached using a study case and content analysis of a major advertising campaign aired in 2011 by a leading Spanish bank. This campaign was ridiculed by social media users, especially in Twitter, and was also a target of a YouTube parody video.

Following up my thesis, there have been several incidents happening to prestigious brands similar to this one. Chevron´s “We agree” (2010) was mocked by activist group The Yes Men, who partnered with the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch to create a fake version of the campaign that was erroneously picked up by the media as authentic. More recently, another “faux pas” examples could be when Coca-Cola was forced to withdraw a Twitter advertising campaign after a counter-campaign by Gawker tricked it into tweeting large chunks of the introduction to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And exactly during the following week of my thesis presentation, it was IBM that faced social media´s anger: IBM has discontinued a campaign encouraging women to get into technology by asking them to “hack a hairdryer”, which the company admitted the campaign “missed the mark for some” and apologised. There are a plethora of cases more recently, and I presented an update of the thesis with more examples in a conference in Lisbon in October 2017.

Why a communication initiative can be a factor of risk for a company?

Usually, companies only sponsor messages that can affect positively its image. However, in these times of social media activism and permanent criticism, this goal is not easily achieved as in the pre-social media era. In the case study I analysed in my thesis and backed up by the literature review,  what I found was:

  1. A primary goal for corporate communication, used as a management function, is to facilitate relationships and symbolic exchanges with the stakeholders of an organisation, and thus establish and maintain a favourable reputation. Increasingly, corporate communication has taken on a more strategic role within organisations in order to help to legitimate them among its stakeholders through impression management techniques. However, at the same time the context of corporate communications has been levelled off by the proliferation of content generated by users on the Internet, which also affects stakeholder’s perceptions, through framing techniques
  2. When this happens, social media can empower consumer and other stakeholder’s resistance, especially social movements, creating reputational risks and crises caused or amplified by online social networks. Organisations must be concerned about these crises  (or “paracrises” as Coombs defines it) and their impact on reputation and legitimacy due to the evolution of the concept of Surveillance Society, where anyone with a mobile phone can now “surveil the surveillers”.
  3. Organisations are increasingly subject of higher public scrutiny by social networks whose some of their users(for any reason) have a strong distrust in corporate discourse and can build and share a counter-discourse. Through their actions on the Internet, social networking operatives make organisations more publicly vulnerable by exposing the contradictions of the corporate rhetoric and creating antagonistic frames for the corporate discourse. Typical rhetoric devices used by activists are brandjacking, parodies or culture jamming.

My thesis addressed a paradigmatic case study that took place in Spain with a large bank (Bankia) and its major advertising campaign which aired in 2011 during the global financial crisis. Similar to the examples mentioned in the beginning of this post, this campaign was heavily criticised (but it was not pulled). Through the data mining and analysis of messages dispersed via Twitter  during the campaign period(more than 30,000), I found empirical evidence that shows how corporate discourse can be deconstructed by social media users, which is a basic principle of online activists and its repertoire of confrontation.

What I found is that when a company does not take into consideration the shared cognitive capital of the message recipients and the social context in which the organisation operates they are more vulnerable to be contradicted by messages disseminated by social media users that, naturally, question the credibility and intentions of the source and its corporate messages.

In cases with these characteristics, communications do not act as a positive force in favour of the brand and the reputation of the organisation. It works contrarily to what is expected, i.e. it is a shoot in the foot.

Facebook trust crisis

Facebook´s ugly face (1/4)

Posted 2 CommentsPosted in Online Reputation, Privacy, Strategy, Trust

In this high-profile reputation crisis involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica I pose a reflection: Is it possible for a multinational organization to be apolitical? This is one of the main ethical challenges of any multinational, but that is even more important when a company is not simply involved in the business of selling products and services, such as gasoline, shoes or perfumes. In the case of Facebook, which self-defined it ambitiously as a company that wants to ‘make the world more open and connected’, it is clear that it is quite complicated. The mission of the company enters in the collision route with the right to privacy and the power of those who use our data in advertising via Facebook as a weapon of influence.

In this sense, the #DeleteFacebook initiative, although it will seldom affect the company, is an interesting indicator of a possible change of social mood in relation to the nice blue company. That’s because the initiative expresses a rejection and the growing awareness that social networks, and in particular Facebook as its main actor, is not as innocent as their smiley faces or thumbs up icons. Or the posts of dogs and cats.

In this crisis of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica what we see clearly is the questioning of the ethics of a company by the way in which:

  1. Manages the data it has gotten from people: the myth of transparency
  2. Understands the private realm as something commercially profitable: the “monetization of our online footprint”
  3. Ultimately, manages stakeholders’ trust

It is an extremely complex case with implications for any company that moves in the digital economy.  Such companies need some parameters about how to make their strategic decisions when these three aspects face their businesses. In the next three posts I will try to address these points. To be continued…

Strategic decisions in the Digital Age

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Innovation, Strategy

The ability to make sound decisions is probably the main requirement that is expected from an executive, in the creation of a strategy or implementation of  the plans. But, in the Digital Age, we need to rethink how to make decisions on such environment. With the currently abundance of data and factors such as hyper competitiveness, permanent revision of business models and the pressure for innovation in increasing speed, it is expected that there will be an important influence of such an environment in decision making. Time, in the Digital Age, is of essence, for example, but there are other factors, of course.

This blog will not venture much into the cognitive or psychological part of how the influence of such new environment occurs. What interests me most is to identify what is happening and what are the challenges in the Digital Age that change (or not) some important marketing and communication practices. From there, my goal is to search for some principles – and learn from them.

Because deciding in the Digital Age is, surely, reviewing beliefs, practices and imagining the future in a way that is not simply a continuation of the past. It is risky in nature because digital technology is only beginning to present its possibilities. Therefore, we have to learn or learn.

The dangers of reductionism in decisions

Reality, as Martin and Smith observe in their Harvard Business Review article on the limits of management as a science, is more complex and we should not think that with more data, algorithms and AI we will always make better decisions. That can be a dangerous reductionism.”Innovators often incorporate scientific discoveries in their creations, but their real genius lies in their ability to imagine products or processes that simply never existed before”, they comment. That is, we must find the logic in the uncertainty, and in the same without all the data find solutions, which is, after all, what is expected of an executive. As Martin and Smith also observe, “the data is nothing more than evidence, and it is not always obvious what this evidence refers to. In addition, the absence of data does not invalidate a possibility. If you are talking about new consequences and behaviors, then naturally there is no prior evidence. ” The Digital Age is not just bytes, data and algorithms, much less the linear continuity of what science prescribed in the past. It’s much more than that. It is, as it was with other similar revolutions, the effect of new technologies on society in a way that is sometimes disruptive and unpredictable. Therefore, we have to understand it well so we will be to play with fire: all the possibilities that the digital technology opens to us.