The plaintiff's bar, according to Richard Levick, "has asserted digital dominance over the defense. In countless class action engagements, plaintiffs’ attorneys have outpaced the companies they target in search engine marketing and optimization (SEM and SEO), in the blogosphere, and on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube."
The same can be said for companies under attack by activist groups and angry citizens. Activist organizations are much better at using the social web in attack mode, although they nearly always have far fewer resources at their disposal than their targets. The examples are legion, from Nestle to Toyota to critics of the development of Canada's oil sands.
It isn't so odd really. To use the social web to greatest effect, you need quick decision-making, nimble approval of content, faith that public opinion matters, and willingness to let others speak for you . . . in other words, actions counter to the command-and-control and circle-the-wagons mindset that overtakes the C-suite in a crisis. Unless it is proved that public opinion will influence the purchase behaviour of a company's customers, piss off regulators or make investors unhappy, there is a propensity for managers to equate defense with inaction.
But that isn't the best strategy. As Mao Zedong said "the only real defense is active defense.", which is a good description of what companies should think of doing online, and a more felicitous strategy for the social web than the common adage that 'the best defense is a good offense.'
Companies don't need to be combative or belligerent as might a plaintiff's counsel in the U.S. But they should offer -- and be willing to discuss -- a point of view using social web tools for three reasons:
- A transparent, fact-based story shared with appropriate humility (if a mistake has been made) and discussed will get traction with non-aligned, non-dogmatic (yes, there are some) social web participants. The critics on the social web may shout the loudest, but the conversationalists and collectors can have political impact (Note . . . Forrester Research social technographic categories)
- The ubiquitous use of search -- on any platform (Google, Twitter, YouTube etc.) -- means that the company's angle on an issue or problem at least stands a chance of getting exposed to non-obdurate or non-ideologically driven citizens.
- Digital memory is timeless and the next time something happens to the company that digital retrospection may not just be of a mess but also of an accurate explanation.