All in Activism

An extensive analysis in Toronto's The Globe and Mail newspaper by Sinclair Stewart and Grant Robertson repeats a popular question: "(I)f print is a dinosaur, what will take up its traditional roles -- informing the public, animating civic culture and holding government accountable?" Jon Slattery picks it up in the U.K.'s The Guardian in a piece with the earthy title 'Where the hell do we go now?' And Canadian blogger and former journalist Mark Evans chimes in with his worry about maintaining the quality of journalism in the face of dissection of the newsroom . . . . without, however, taking a stand on the future of news journalism and without drawing a picture of an alternative news cosmos.

The background to the soul-searching is the precipitous disappearance of major newspapers in print form (The Seattle Intelligencer most recently and The San Francisco Chronicle likely next). At the core of the discussion, other than the loss of jobs and the "decline" of quality (The quotation marks are purposeful since quality has been in retreat in broadcast and print journalism from before social media became a threat.) is the question of whether social discourse, investigative inquiry and democracy will suffer without an energetic and well-financed fourth estate playing the role of critical watchdog.

The model is changing. That much is self-evident. But there is an embryonic new model within the decline (which nearly always happens in transition periods) and it is based on an unprecedented ability to gather, share and act collectively. Clay Shirky in 'Here Comes Everybody' calls it a new communications "ecology":

"The change isn't a shift from one kind of news institution to another, but rather in the definition of news: from news as an institutional prerogative to news as part of a communications ecosystem, occupied by a mix of formal organizations, informal collectives, and individuals."

Some of the critical pieces of the prototype are already in place.

The ability of people using social networks to form and act together in groups means that problems like corruption and malfeasance among legislators, clergy and citizens can be discovered and fought with even greater speed than when we depended on investigative journalism to root it out. Shirky again . . . "social tools don't create collective action - they merely remove the obstacles to it." Without the obstacles to discovery and action, the social criminals and demagogues won't be able to hide for long.

With the ability of anyone to publish, for the time being we have lost the beauty of fine writing. But not the capacity to find and report significant events. In exchange, we've got speed in reporting news, depth, breadth and personality in what is understood as "news", and often now quirky and energetic prose. The result may be hyper-local community reportage (and publications), but it can also become national and international news if warranted or needed. The disappearance of some print and broadcast outlets doesn't mean that news is not being revealed, or that criticism isn't being coalesced into opposition, only that the agent has changed.

As for print newspapers providing a sense of community and hence their disappearance leading to a decline in a sense of place, this is silly. Where we get a sense of community is simply shifting to social networks built around communities and communities of interest. I can learn as much (and find out more immediately) about Toronto from as from the Toronto Star or the Toronto Sun.

Newspapers as we know them won't all disappear. We need journalistic models of quality, thoroughness and objectivity to learn from and against which to measure citizen journalism. And they're wonderful to sit with on a Sunday morning while enjoying a cappuccino. Nevertheless, their influence will surely continue to decline. However, democracy is safe in the hands of all of us.

What I like about Sun Life Financial Inc. giving shareholders an advisory vote on executive compensation (joining seven other Canadian financial institutions including most of the large banks, although not Toronto-Dominion Bank and Manulife Financial Corp.)is that the company has evidently recognized something has to be done by business to rebuild shareholder and public trust.

Since the Enron years, most polling acknowledges a steady decline in trust in business and financial institutions. Any doubts about the extent of the decline are obviated when you look at the results of a recent Harris Poll:

"Those who think 'most people on Wall Street would be willing to break the law if they believed that they could make a lot of money and get away with it' are up to 71%. The highest number previously was 64% in 1996"

True, this is Wall Street we are talking about, ground zero for dishonest and manipulative practices in investment and compensation strategies. But mistrust is becoming indiscriminate and ubiquitous.

There are those who think this trust deficit is temporary, a function of the economic tsunami hitting global finance. Once things go back to "normal", the argument goes, the pressure for greater transparency in compensation policies and increased board oversight will whither away in a sea of fatter profits.

Ian Davis, worldwide managing director of McKinsey, arguing the contrary, is closer to the truth: He has written a piece called 'The New Normal' in which he forecasts that:

". . . around the world governments will be calling the shots in sectors (such as debt insurance) that were once only lightly regulated. They will also be demanding new levels of transparency and disclosure for investment vehicles such as hedge funds and getting involved in decisions that were once the sole province of corporate boards, including executive compensation."

This will be the new normal, and without actions similar to that of Sun Life and the seven other Canadian financial institutions increased shareholder activism, loud public displeasure, media sniping, punishment by consumers and abrupt regulation will surely follow.

Ten days or so of campaigns being waged online:

  1. Young drivers in Ontario are using Facebook to challenge a new piece of legislation adding new restrictions on licensing of teenage drivers, including zero tolerance policies on speeding and drinking for drivers under 21 years old. Facebook group membership is at 79,000 or so and growing. The provincial government in Ontario says it will have no impact on progress of the legislation, dismissing the protest as involving what the Ontario Minister of Transportation James Bradley calls "for the most part, kids who are 16 or 17". I wonder how he determined that demographic mix of group members? A bit presumptuous I think and likely to push a spike in membership.
  2. The now famous Twitter assault on Motrin has apparently occasioned backlash from advertising executives because such campaigns may "kill creativity." The value of such hand-wringing aside, I wonder what exactly was creative about such copy as "It totally makes me look like an official mom." Judge for yourself whether this is creative or discourteous.

And finally, although I can't find a Facebook group or Twitter campaign underway on it yet, there's a movement just waiting for a digital hero. Here's the story. It was reported this week in Canada's National Post that "Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has hired six students whose jobs as "dialogue facilitators" will involve intervening in conversations among students in dining halls and common rooms to encourage discussion of such social justice issues as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability and social class." This followed hard on the heels of the university moving the controversial -- although very popular -- homecoming celebrations (read 'street party') to May when most students have all left the university. Anyone for re-reading Orwell's 1984

The accusation leveled against communications and public relations professionals is that what they (we) do is "spin" facts on behalf of clients to evade truth. Anyone who has actually practiced the profession knows that this is in large measure stupid and ahistorical.

To quote myself (for the second time . . .forgive me again) from a previous post on messaging and spin:

"This is nonsense and I have written about it elsewhere. Forgive me if I quote myself from that post:

Messaging to my way of thinking is making a point of view apparent . . .  with simplicity, clarity and force. It is an element of Aristotelian rhetoric and is the foundation of ordinary discourse. Using it on behalf of a client to explain -- truthfully and openly -- a point of view is much less manipulative than juxtaposing a terrifying image with an alarmist headline. Of course, when messages are treated as dogma they can't help but sound like spin."

Two things have led me to reprise the idea: A unique beta website (hat tip to colleague Alan Chumley for bringing it to my attention) called SpinSpotter and an article in The Globe and Mail on the 'L' word in the current Canadian and American elections.

SpinSpotter is "a website and software tool that exposes new spin and bias, misuse of sources, and suspect factual support." You turn on SpinSpotter and it will flag words and phrases in an article that evidence bias, are just recycled phrases from a press release, or favor slant and opinion to reporting. What constitutes "spin" is defined by an advisory group of journalists assembled by the SpinSpotter folks. A computer algorithm allows all users to contribute to the knowledge base of "spin". And truth mongers can share with others their own "spin markers" when they come across an egregious example of the uniquely subjective writing that sometimes passes for reporting today. 

The Globe and Mail story talks about the Democratic Party launching a 'Count the Lies' site which keeps a running tally of the number of lies John McCain tells during his campaign. This may seem redundant since political campaigns are about power not truth, and truth (like civility and decency) is easily sacrificed in politics. But at least the Democrats have given political campaigning its true name.

I love both because they are small proofs that social media and and the web encourage the democratization of ideas and facilitate honesty. And if you need further evidence, Jeremiah Owyang at Forrester has developed (although it isn't clear from his post if he is the progenitor of the concept) a protocol for using Twitter to score the candidates in the first presidential debate on September 26th.

His scoring guide looks like this:

-3 for a personal attack
-2 for a false statement
-1 for avoiding the issue, or not answering the question
+1 for a successful assertion
+2 for a successful counterpoint to opponents assertion
+3 Quotable sound bite


It is hard to take Twitter seriously with a name like that . . . but I do, and can think of a number of serious (as opposed to 'fun' or 'social') applications of a micro-blogging platform.

Last year there were some useful posts about various uses for Twitter. A couple of the more complete lists were:

But this post was prompted specifically by a John Dickerson article in Slate addressed to journalists called "Don't Fear Twitter".  Chief political correspondent for Slate, Dickerson addresses the idea that with the traditional "space" for journalism shrinking (read fewer publications, reduced lineage, serious writing replaced by celebrity gossip and other trashy amusements) no journalist would want to take up a medium restricted to 140 characters.

On the contrary, says Dickerson . . .  

"If written the right way, Twitter entries build a community of readers who find their way to longer articles because they are lured by these moment-by-moment observations. As a reader, I've found that I'm exposed to a wider variety of news because I read articles suggested to me by the wide variety of people I follow on Twitter. I'm also exposed to some keen political observers and sharp writers who have never practiced journalism."

So here three personal reasons for tweeting on and off throughout the day, all of which suggest uses for Twitter in a corporate context:

  1. Similar to Dickerson, I get exposed quickly and without much editorializing to a variety of links -- some worthwhile, others trivial -- from people whose ideas I generally respect and whose knowledge adds to mine. Since I "follow" people who share an interest in social media, politics, public relations, literature and film, the tweets are nearly always 'productive'.
  2. Similar to reason one, Twitter democratizes the sharing of ideas. There are no inferred hierarchies, only that derived from the value to me of the content posted. The focus is content and point of view, not position or role.
  3. The possibilities of Twitter as a form of instant, broad communication to different groupings and 'classes' of people are made manifest each time a subject is picked and pursued. Twitter reveals the potential for quick discussion, concept sharing or action by cohorts of people sharing common cause. I can see activists creating dedicated Twitter groups to synchronize action, or companies constructing Twitter crisis management teams for coordinating emergency response.

Yes . . . it is also fun to know that @leahjones in San Francisco is standing at the bus stop smelling cotton candy at 7:00 a.m. on a Monday morning (a tweet from five minutes ago) . . . someone who I have never met.

Web_shot The people at Tomorrow's Company will launch a new beta web site next week called Force for Good. (Its holding page can be found here until the official launch scheduled for July 15th.) The group will be using the site to build a community of interest, news and debate focused on what I think is a unique and strong point of view on the evolving relationship between business, society and government.

The vision of Tomorrow's Company (TC) is "to create a future for business which makes equal sense to staff, shareholders and society" and it describes itself as a 'think-and-do-tank'  (nice that!)

There are many organizations and consultants (including me under the auspices of Hill & Knowlton) who look to help businesses understand and apply corporate responsibility and sustainability principles and ideas to corporate policies, programs, governance and reporting. 

But TC has a different starting point than many non-government organizations, if indeed that's the right descriptor. In a meeting yesterday with TC's CEO Tony Manwaring and Force for Good web manager Ivor Gibbons they outlined an inclusive point of view on corporate responsibility that underscores the interdependence of business, civil society and government. It is a more realistic, ideology-resistant and sane framework within which to think about the future of business in a troubled world. 

When up and running, TC's Force For Good will be an online platform for case studies, essays, toolkits, and sustainbility and CR news with functionality allowing videos, podcasts, blogs and it is hoped user-focused forums. Given TC's inclusive standpoint, the web site will bring a refreshingly sensible tone to the CR and sustainability conversation.

And, yes, they are going to let me blog on the site.

Industry and business seldom take on advocacy groups and science ("junk" or legitimate) any more, at least publicly.

So it is with some interest I noticed in yesterday's National Post that the tanning bed industry in Canada has launched a campaign to challenge what it calls the "extreme" point of view of the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) and the World Health Organization in its "pure abstinence messaging" when it comes to UV exposure. The duel between white coats has begun and has already gotten a bit messy as the Joint Canadian Tanning Association accuses the CDA of having close financial links to sunscreen manufacturers.

The tanning bed industry is using a model of aggressive reputation defense that has fallen out of favor given the relative lack of public credibility in business compared to NGOs and global health and environmental bodies. Dialogue and active problem identification and resolution are the preferred routes to managing social, environmental and health problems blamed on industry. But I presume there are more than a few frustrated companies standing on the sidelines of this one waiting to see how the tanning bed industry fairs in its campaign for "moderation" in assessing the cancer risks in UV exposure whether from the sun or a tanning bed.    

In a couple of weeks, I will be on a panel at the IPRA Summit in London with Roger Hammond, CEO of Living Earth and Guy Cote, vice president of media relations at JT International S.A. (a tobacco company).

Our panel will be looking at the topic . . . 'Impact of Pressure Groups and Activism on Communication Campaigns'.

IcgangI am starting to pull together my thinking on the theme and would be grateful if pointed towards any RECENT blog commentary, academic studies and especially surveys about the role of activism in driving or undermining corporate communications programs and campaigns.

It's not much, but in exchange we can connect with Twitter and I will update regularly on the ideas being discussed during IPRA Summit sessions, and write here about significant discussions.

One session in particular might be of interest to social media watchers: "New and Social Media in 2008 and Beyond" with among others panelist Christophe Ginisty, managing director or Rumeur Publique, who last year at the same conference provided controversial insights into the impact of social media on French politics.

This statement may lack humility but I have argued long and often (without much effect I'm afraid) that NGOs and advocacy groups are more skilled at using social networks than most corporations which have many times the monetary and personnel resources. Penury apparently fosters ingenuity, flexibility, and speed I guess.

Anyway, there is a new book out called Mobilizing Generation 2.0 that according to danah boyd is a "how-to guide to help those who want to mobilize using the web, focusing on how organizers can leverage blogging, social network sites, photo/video sharing, mobile phones, wikis, maps and virtual worlds." boyd herself has an essay in the book about the online world as a form of "public space" (or as I have called it, again immodestly, a new' demos').

I'll take a look, as should any corporate communicator who may face angry citizens armed with participatory technologies. And which company can say it hasn't . . . or won't?

Sw_logo_left_2 I am ambivalent about the idea of corporate "front groups" or what is more pejoratively labeled 'astroturfing'. Misrepresentation of any sort is just too dangerous a communications or lobbying strategy when every citizen, employee or bureaucrat can be a whistleblower or journalist.

The issue was raised again last week when I came across a 'Front Groups Portal' wiki, a SourceWatch project of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD. . . a biased and uni-dimensional advocacy group -- with a url called -- which nevertheless keeps corporate communicators on their toes.) The purpose of the wiki is to expose groups which claim “to represent one agenda while in reality (serving) some other interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned -- typically, a corporate or government sponsor.”

As an aside, you got to hand it to the CMD. Using a wiki for the purpose of "exposing" makes a lot of sense. When it comes to advocating a point of view, for some campaigners, NGOs and watchdogs facts are less important than the way they can be used to serve ideology. (Look at the situation Barrick Gold finds itself in today.) Unedited and unsupervised wikis can encourage the primacy of 'doxa' rather than rational analysis. Innuendo and rumor become fair game.

But What About Astroturfing?

First principle here . . . There is nothing wrong with creating a coalition of like-minded companies to present a coherent, well-defended and honest point of view about a social or political issue. Business creates wealth and therefore has a right to attempt to influence policy. Governments are fallible when it comes to writing regulation. Partisan politics can distort effective public policy. And few advocacy groups are willing to admit their science is sometimes shaky; their motivation driven by ideology; their "proofs" less than rigorously questioned internally.

Spirited exchanges of ideas are essential to effective economics and democracy. Like labor, business leaders have a right to organize responsible support for, or opposition to, a trend, decision or policy: the pivotal word, of course being responsible. And responsible organizations shouldn't tolerate misrepresentation. Here are five ideas to avoid astroturfing, to remain real not fake.

Five Ideas for Creating Defensible Industry Coalitions

  1. Be transparent. Always. Without having to be asked or told you are not being so.
  2. Be honest. Don't name a group 'concerned citizens' when it is really a group of 'angry industry executives'.
  3. Treat opposing viewpoints with respect. Nothing undermines bias or radicalism like valuing the contribution of the activist even if convictions differ.
  4. Take the rhetoric out of the coalition's communications. The contrast between an opponent's overstatement and a reasonable presentation of fact will be recognized by the people whose opinions matter.
  5. Defend the value in a democracy of the freedom of association . . . even for business leaders.

On Friday, I wrote about a Black Dog Strategic's point of view on next generation social networks, and  declining participation in Facebook.

I don't find the decline at all surprising. Neither does it dissuade me from the belief that social networks are changing the nature of democratic action, of social intervention, of public policy formation, of grassroots activism, of organized advocacy.

Here are two criticisms of social networking that miss the point about its potential to cause harm or to extend influence, both of which should concern public relations and public affairs people. (For the full catalogue of complaints see Mr. Owyang's post from last week.)

Criticism One: Not all "friends" on MySpace or Facebook represent close personal relationships.

  • We all know this is true, but it doesn't mean that other kinds of political or socially motivated relationships can't be formed on the platform. The ability of the platform to facilitate ad hoc, issue- driven associations will be a critical factor in issue management strategies in the future.
  • The ties between "friends" on Facebook may be weak, and the infrastructure of the connections easily ruptured. But when something is sufficiently troubling for a community of interest, then there is a platform which facilitates connection and helps rally seamlessly and quickly a network of associations around common cause. That used to take a matter of days and weeks. Ask any activist. Now it takes a matter of minutes to begin a "campaign".

Criticism Two: According to Business Week "Besides the slowing user growth and declining time spent on these sites, users appear to be growing less responsive to ads, according to several advertisers and online placement firms."

  • Social networks may provide opportunities for marketers and advertisers, although frankly this doesn't interest me. If we think the only measure of their success and sustainability is the extent to which they can be used to sell products, then we'll miss their potentially more durable value as a demos, a place for the exchange of opinions and ideas. Not much has been made of this dimension yet except -- amusingly -- by U.S. politicians and social activists. However, the potential is there; it would be silly to give up on them yet

Here are three campaigns that may have made a difference, caused an organization harm or at least caught our attention for a time . . . and as such may be models for new  forms of activism:

  1. "Generation Facebook is using the Net not only to pledge online support for causes, but to take action in the real world." (Business Week, February 14, 2008)
  2. “Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off” (Trend Hunter, September 4, 2007)
  3. "Stop animal testing in Nova Scotia" (Facebook Group)