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How To Respond When Digital Social Activists Have You In Their Crosshairs

Three tactics for turning social-media fueled haters' antics against them.

Social activists are upgrading their approach to pressuring the companies they see as less than socially responsible. Take what’s happened to Shell this summer. As the global energy giant moves forward with plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean, Greenpeace, the Yes Men, and the Occupy movement have teamed up to take their efforts to another level.

First, the activist triumvirate launched a mock "Arctic Ready" website that mirrors its genuine Shell counterpart in almost every way, except for the sarcastic "Let’s Hit the Beach" tagline; a conspicuous and unsubstantiated claim that 300,000 people die every year from "climate-change-related causes;" and the image of an adorable arctic fox accompanied by a caption that reads "No. You can’t run your SUV on ‘cute.’" Then, the groups staged a mock press event gone horribly wrong that went viral on YouTube. Finally, a fake Shell social media response team took to Twitter under the handle @ShellIsPrepared to urge followers not to share the damaging content cited above, knowing that such a corporate censorship attempt would only encourage followers to share more.

More than a few traditional journalists and influential social media mavens have been taken by the hoaxes—and while that seems to be the activists’ goal, it is also underscores the strategy’s fatal flaw. Activists largely rely on third parties to give their movements teeth. They need traditional journalists, regulators, shareholders, plaintiffs’ attorneys, and consumers to take notice before their targets are forced to confront tangible consequences. The problem with these underhanded tactics is that they seek to dupe—and often embarrass—the very allies activists need to rally. Tricks of this sort trade credibility for visibility. Before long, the law of diminishing returns kicks in and the most important audiences stop paying attention to the boy that cries wolf.

All that notwithstanding, a trend seems to be emerging among groups that see these stunts as "ends justify the means" propositions. In an age when social media is top dog, the pursuit of likes, shares, and re-tweets has resulted in an activist community that looks a lot more like Occupy Wall Street than the one the Ralph Nadars of the world used to define (I, for one, got my professional start in the Nader network). This means activists are likely to grow all the more creative, shocking, and intransient to keep attracting key audiences of influentials that fatigues a little more with every prank. But it also means companies that find themselves in these activists’ crosshairs can take advantage of their adversaries’ strategic missteps by following three rules for a new age in activism.

1. Resist the urge to fight.

Like a little sibling that antagonizes an older brother or sister, activists’ stunts seek to achieve the dual objectives of attention and provocation. They are looking to pick a fight that results in more coverage and more social media activity. As such, the worst thing a target company can do is take the bait. As the people behind @ShellIsPrepared amply demonstrated, attempts to silence a stunt often have the opposite effect as they enhance the story’s viral allure. At the same time, anything the company says in response only provides fodder that turns a one-day story into a two or three-day day saga.

Litigation—while perfectly justified in cases where activists are using a target’s own intellectual property against it (logos, slogans, etc.)—usually won’t solve the problem either. The speed and inter-connected nature of the social media space means that no court order could ever hope to close Pandora’s Box quickly enough to have any real impact. Even if a company wins an injunction and forces one site or social media account to close shop, it won’t be long before another pops up to take its place. Moreover, the courtroom win would still translate into a Court of Public Opinion loss for having provided adversaries undue levels of credibility and creating the perception that the company does indeed have something to hide.

2. Strengthen media ties.

The more that activists rely on hoaxes, rumor, and conjecture, the more social and traditional media reporters need sources they can trust—and who better to fill that role than the target company itself. In the wake of a high-profile hoax, targets should reach out to influential journalists and high authority bloggers to let them know the company stands ready to provide real-time answers to any questions and assist in preventing misconceptions from being communicated as fact. Even better, they should "know ‘em before they need ‘em." Journalists and bloggers have been conditioned to be as receptive as ever—and especially so if the hoax caused a few reporters to print retractions to erroneous stories.

3. Take ownership of the issue at hand.

Total victory in companies’ eternal struggle with adversarial NGOs and other activist groups rarely comes from winning the argument. Rather, it is secured when companies make their adversaries’ issues their own. In the digital age, that means Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Marketing (SEM) strategies that co-opt the visibility activists are so desperately seeking. Target companies need to purchase the terms associated with an activist campaign (be it a website title, a slogan, or a twitter handle) and use those top-ranked links to highlight their own messages about social responsibility. Again, it’s preferable to undertake this task before an activist salvo is launched by anticipating the most likely areas of exposure. The search engines are where the bulk of that all-important cascade of audiences—consumers, regulators, bloggers, plaintiffs, journalists, etc. (alluded to above) will turn for the real story. When a target company takes control of those venues, it takes control of the narrative.

The times have changed and activists have changed right along with them. When their credibility cedes ground to sensationalism with stunts, prank, and hoax, companies—traditionally on the defensive—have the opportunity to assume the mantles of idealism and justice. The companies that take advantage of that fact are those that will position themselves to be seen not as part of the problem; but necessary to the solution.

Follow Richard Levick on Twitter and circle him on Google+, where he comments daily on the issues impacting corporate brands.

Richard Levick, Esq., President and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters — from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom," and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis,and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.

[Image: Flickr user Jill Watson]

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