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Social Warfare

In giving my SMB social media talks, the topic of deliberate bad behavior always comes up.

“What keeps me from going on Yelp and trashing my competitor down the street?” is a typical question. Or “What if my sister-in-law writes a really nice review for me?”

My response is that we’re kind of living in the wild, wild west and that until some social norms grow up and we get marshals to enforce them people need to be prepared.

I talk about Jeff Jarvis’ “Dell Hell” posts that triggered massive waves that hammered Dell…but I talk about Jeff as the pebble that unleashed the avalanche – not as a ‘community organizer’ mau-mauing the corporations.

I’ve talked with friends about “social DDoS” attacks, where a few thousand people could swarm a social site and in effect trash the community there – I imagined it as a tool Russian or Indian hackers would start using against corporations for money, political opponents would use against each others’ campaigns, or activists pushing business or government targets to change.

And now Greenpeace is using Nestle’s social media presence to attack Nestle for its consumption of plantation-grown palm oil.

Check out Nestle’s fan page on Facebook…

Regardless of the merits of the underlying case (I have no clue), Nestle is doing a – horrible – job managing the outbreak on Facebook, and in general seems to back on its corporate heels on this.

So what does this mean?

A few critical things for every business out there.

1. Be Prepared

First, just as you should be prepared for any other kind of disaster (supplier failure, selling damaged goods, embezzlement, fire, flood, or earthquake) you now need to be prepared for social disasters as well…

…these could be triggered by competitors, by personal enemies, by activist groups looking to make a point. They could be triggered by a misunderstanding that explodes in your face, or you could get caught in the backwash of an attack on your biggest vendor or customer.

What do you do about this?

Well, it happens that in my real life I study crises, from the intimate scale to the global. I’m a kind of preparedness fiend, and believe that it’s critical to be able to respond to what the world deals you.

And there are a lot of lessons to be learned here from real-world crises.

2. When it happens, you’ll get stupid.

The first is that most people’s thinking gets shut off when a crisis happens. The higher functions of judgment and perspective are the first to go. That’s why planning is so important.

Because you can think clearly about crises before you’re in them. Which is why you should do at least some thinking before the crisis happens.

3. Make a plan.

What should a plan be? That will vary widely by your scale, resources, and degree of desired control. It could be a set of three-ring binders that you rehearse once every six months. Or it could be a 3 x 5 card pushpinned to the wall next to your desk. Both extremes will have some common points:

For starters, know what you’ll do if you need help. Identify the appropriate responders – whether Facebook’s customer service group, a local social media expert who you trust, a global agency with social media capabilities – whoever is appropriate to the scale and domain of your business.

Next, define who will do what. Most companies I know delegate actual social media presence to the young…and unwise. That’s not great for a variety of reasons, but when you get in trouble – go read the Nestle Facebook threads – it can lead to disaster. Senior, authoritative voices need to step in.

How do you deal with an angry mob online? Much like you’d deal with an angry crowd in the real world. Engage, listen, defuse. Seek third parties to balance the discussion. set boundaries on behavior, not content – and aggressively police behavior while making it clear that you’re not policing content.

4. What’s the wrong thing to do?

Hunker down, deny, get a megaphone and broadcast denials.

Doing it right doesn’t mean that you’ll calm the waters completely. But you should be able to split the reasonable parts of the crowd from the unreasonable, and show the unreasonable as being – unreasonable and thus less attractive.

5. What should Nestle have done?

Well, first of all, as soon as the objections (to the farming process that is used to harvest the palm oil they use in their products) were publicly raised, they should have researched them and developed articulatable defenses.

This is a critical step. There’s a famous military theorist named John Boyd, who talks about guerilla warfare in ‘Patterns of Conflict.’ On slide 18, he says:


Undermine guerilla cause and destroy their cohesion by demonstrating integrity and competence of government to represent and serve needs of the people – rather than exploit and impoverish them for the benefit of a greedy elite.*

Take political initiative to root out and visibly punish corruption. Select new leaders with recognized competence as well as popular appeal. Ensure that they deliver justice, eliminate grievances and connect government with grass roots.*

*If you cannot realize such a political program, you might consider changing sides.

It’s a critical lesson for this situation – if you can’t articulate a clear defense against the claims being made against you – don’t defend yourself, change. Explain how you’re changing, when it will happen, and what it will look like.

Again – I don’t know enough about Greenpeace’s charges against Nestle to begin to know whether they are defendable or not.

What would a defense look like? Credible ecologists talking objectively about the impact of the farming techniques, with facts in support. Workers on plantations talking about the economic impacts of the available jobs. Things like that could be credible arguments – if true and defendable.

If not? Then Nestle should explain how in the near future they will be certifying their growers, or replacing the product with another that has lower impacts.

Each business out there should know what the likely problems will be. Are you a restaurant? Did someone’s reservation get missed? For their anniversary dinner? And when you eventually seated them, they got food poisoning?

Now – while you’re calm and not facing a mailbox full of hostile emails – list the four or five ‘most likely’ disasters that could lead to a social storm. How would you reply to each of them? Make some notes, and at 1am when you’re looking at a Facebook fan page full of vitriolic comments – those notes might give to a first step into solving the problem.

It is kind of the wild, wild, west out here in social media world. And that means that for a while you need to learn to be a peacekeeper.

Just remember that in the real Old West they did a lot more talking than they did shooting…