They might not have well-paid PR teams or six-figure marketing budgets, but activists are storming ahead in the race to adapt new social media. In the web 2.0 era, what must companies do to be heard?


They might not have well-paid PR teams or six-figure marketing budgets, but activists are storming ahead in the race to adapt new social media. In the web 2.0 era, what must companies do to be heard?

It reads like a spoof text message. “London, 14 January, 7pm, Heathrow. Deeds not words! Bring picnic blankets.” It’s no joke though. More than 1,000 environmental protestors took up the call and held a mass sit-in at Heathrow’s Terminal 1. The message daubed over their blankets, “Climate Chaos – It’s no picnic”, was splashed over the next day’s newspapers.

Climate Rush is symbolic of where activism is at these days. Campaigners are slick, smart and, above all, new media savvy.

Styling themselves as modern-day suffragettes, climate rushers liaise through a basic, low-cost website. The tone is direct and no-nonsense. No flash graphics. No PR speak. Action alerts wing their way out by email. Word is spread further via social media tools such as Facebook and Bebo. And so a street protest is born.

The recent G20 conference in London highlights how quickly social media is spreading. With web access limited, climate change campaigners used micro-blogging service Twitter extensively to organise themselves and share updates.

The campaign virus

It is not hard to work out why social media appeals so much to the campaign community. The latest generation information technologies are cheap, fast and almost infinite in reach. Little wonder the signature collectors of old have swapped pens for PCs.

“The internet has enabled a quicker response and it can all be done at relatively little expense,” says Phil Lee, web coordinator for environment non-profit Friends of the Earth International.

By way of evidence, he cites a recent email campaign run by Friends of the Earth International for its local chapter in Nigeria. The aim was to bring global attention to the issue of gas flaring, which continues in the oil-rich African state despite a national ban. The approach worked. More than 10,000 signatories were collected within a matter of weeks.

The most popular entry to a one-minute video competition run by Friends of the Earth UK, meanwhile, received over one million hits on YouTube.

“Online campaigning is a hugely powerful tool … as it enables you to start from nowhere,” says Ben Stewart, a spokesman for environmental campaign group Greenpeace. He should know. Greenpeace was originally set up by a handful of radical Vancouver-based ecologists in an effort to stop arms testing off the coast of Alaska. Nearly four decades later, the organisation boasts about 2.8 million supporters worldwide and operates offices in 41 countries.

Greenpeace’s propulsion onto the world stage came in the mid-1990s, just as new media technologies were taking off. The television news beamed live video footage from its campaign ship Rainbow Warrior to millions of viewers around the world. Boycotts followed and Greenpeace’s membership numbers shot up.

Today, the organisation’s campaigns are unashamedly multimedia. Take The Convenient Solution as an example. Greenpeace produced this short environment film specifically for distribution on the internet. Downloads stand at 65,000 and climbing. For Hollywood, it spells disaster if a film finds its way onto the web. For online campaigners, making it big on the net is what they dream about.

Greenpeace’s recent campaign to prevent an extension to Heathrow airport shows just how quickly things are developing in cyberspace. The placards and press releases are still in place. But leading the charge is a cutting-edge website. All users need to do is click on and sign up to become “beneficial owners” of the land earmarked for the proposed new runway. About 10,000 people did so in the first 24 hours that went live.

The main corporate website of BAA, the operator of Heathrow airport, hosts a single page on the issue. The dry text, written in small grey font, reads blandly by comparison. Users are encouraged to check out the company’s corporate social responsibility report for more information. A temptation most would pass.

Corporate catch-up

BAA’s response highlights the difficulty for companies operating in an age of virtual activism. Responding directly to every web critic is impractical. The average large consumer brand is the subject of thousands of websites, MySpace pages, email strings and chatrooms around the globe.

The first challenge is simply to monitor what is out there. Some companies undertake the job in-house, but many outsource the task to a public relations firm or to agencies specialising in social media monitoring such as Radian6.

The job has become easier since the introduction of powerful search engines, but keeping track of what’s being said on the web remains a labour-intensive job. Google, for example, is great for indexing text-based content but not video or other new social media.

Working out who is who in cyberspace presents its difficulties as well. Historically, companies would chart the potential influence of a stakeholder against the potential reputational risk of the issue at hand. A high registry on both would set the alarm bells ringing.

Online activism is not quite so simple. Financial resources, political clout, moral authority and media presence used to determine a stakeholder’s influence. They still do. But into the mix must go the exponential power of the internet.

When worked well, the web can jettison a lone activist to global prominence. The sensation caused by Salam Pax, aka the Baghdad Blogger, during the Iraq War provides ample proof of that.

“Anyone can set up a site and come up with a story … I don’t think you can militate against it,” says Ed Gillespie, co-founder and creative director of London-based sustainability consultancy Futerra.

That leaves companies with the tricky conundrum of when, and indeed whether, to respond. Careful judgment is required on both counts. Act too quickly, Gillespie warns, and a company can give too much weight to an unsubstantiated complaint. Leave it too long and an online campaign can snowball out into the street and onto the shop-front.

Companies’ attitudes to online critics all too often copy government policies towards terrorists, ie they refuse to negotiate. The strategy is understandable. Most web-based campaigns deal in threats and denouncements, not in invitations to dialogue. A clear position statement often represents the extent to which a company can and should respond.

Positioning posts

If a company chooses to react, then the questions of how to do so soon follow. In the old days, a straightforward letter or press release would suffice. In recent years, large companies have sought to anticipate potential controversies by posting position statements on their corporate websites.

Change is afoot, however. Web activism is becoming increasingly interactive and community-orientated. Sites such as Facebook and MySpace are making it easier for like-minded people to find each other and to share information. As online campaigners become more interactive, the impulse is on companies to keep pace.

In the past two or three years, cyberspace has become bombarded with a plethora of corporate blogs, chatrooms, web-based forums and social networking initiatives. But are they working?

US restaurant chain McDonald’s reflects the headlong rush by corporations to get their ethics online. The company has launched a dedicated corporate responsibility website – – with the stated objective of making its ethical performance “as accessible and engaging as possible”.

The site achieves its stated goals neatly. Clearly laid out and jargon-free, the homepage provides links through to McDonald’s policies on core social and environmental issues, to recent news and to its digitalised annual corporate responsibility report (with embedded video).

If they want to, web browsers can join senior supply chain manager Jessica Droste Yagan on a four-minute video where she meets suppliers. They can also check out a carefully crafted blog by the senior corporate responsibility manager. Subscriptions to Google Reader, NewsGator Online, Bloglines and My Yahoo! await those anxious for the very latest updates.

But how many average Big Mac customers actually log on? Getting non-specialist stakeholders to “Digg This!” form of online communication is notoriously difficult.

McDonald’s only elicited an average of two authorised comments per blog posting during March. Either unsanctioned contributors are being screened out or the online public isn’t commenting. Neither represents an ideal scenario.

“It [web communication] is an area companies do very badly. No one has really cracked it,” says Peter Knight, president of specialist communications agency Context America and a regular Ethical Corporation columnist.

Large companies are inevitably hide-bound in their communications, he adds. Only a handful of corporations enjoy the kind of street-cred that attracts people to the hippest websites and social networks. Legal constraints and close brand management make the task of being catchy and cutting-edge even more challenging.

Just as it is hard to get it right, it is only too easy to get it wrong. The examples of corporate web-based initiatives that miss the mark are legion.

Knight cites the example of drinks giant Diageo. With all the best intentions, the company has set up a responsible drinking website, The well-informed portal presents no shortage of tips and advice for heavy drinkers. “But which binge drinker is realistically going to log on to this site?” Knight asks sceptically.

Shell’s recent attempt to engage European stakeholders about its energy policy provides another case study in how not to do it. Again, the portal – – boasts all the latest multimedia rigmarole expected of what are sometimes termed web 2.0 sites. But the fundamental premise – namely, “debating the challenges of the future” – strikes an offbeat note when set against Shell’s recent decision to pull out of renewable energies.

“It feels likes obfuscation … what’s the point in running a big, expensive online stakeholder engagement website when you don’t have any intention on following up on what it says?” says Futerra’s Gillespie.

Socialising cyberspace

So how to get it right? One line of argument says that companies should not try at all. Just as parents shouldn’t wear their caps backwards to mimic their children, nor should large corporations aspire to muscle in with the online community, the argument runs.

The position is misplaced. All the indications suggest that e-communities and social media are here to stay. If only for that reason, companies must resolve how to get onboard.

But a copycat approach will not work. Oil company Chevron, for example, has made a valiant effort to take on campaigners at their own game. Remove the corporate logo and its heavily advertised climate change site could pass for the very best environmental activist portal.

And therein lies its downfall. Oil majors are not activists and online users know this. However transparent and desperate to engage the company may be, a credibility gap will always exist for the online imitator.

“Oil companies want you to use their products, and despite what they may appear to say, they really want you to use oil,” writes keithf, an online contributor to the Unsuitableblog website and a high-ranked entrant on search engine Google.

Predictably, links are then provided to other online sites highlighting alleged inconsistencies in Chevron’s position. For the uninformed stakeholder, a grassroots website such as holds as much credibility as Chevron’s portal, or more. (Ethical Corporation’s efforts to engage with the administrators of Chevron’s website were met with polite refusal.)

If companies are to tread the web 2.0 route, then they must be upfront about their core business and honest about their objectives. Integrity can’t be faked. Real online communities work precisely because, as one leading communications expert puts it, they are real.

“For some companies, it’s in their nature to be pathological. This [social media] can’t be a wash. It must be genuine,” says James Warren, chief digital strategist at global communications agency Weber Shandwick.

Tone is all important, Warren adds. Companies must be seen to listen, to be supportive and act as a gateway to introduce like-minded people. Being active marks a second essential. Corporations can’t dip in and out of the social media space. Nor can they limit their scope. Successful social networkers are everywhere.

“Within the social web, it’s no longer enough to expect interested parties to come to your digital backyard and have conversations on your terms … You have to go out and participate within [online] communities,” Warren advises.

Secondly, companies must establish the objective of their online engagement initiatives from the start. Is it to get direct feedback from stakeholders? To create a space for general dialogue? To advertise a product or promote a brand? All are legitimate, but require different approaches.

One company to have made a credible stab at getting these pieces in place is Marks & Spencer. The UK retailer’s Plan A website – – starts by laying out the company’s commitments upfront. The language is direct and the design clean. As a consequence, users immediately understand Marks & Spencer’s pledge to reduce its carbon footprint and clean up its supply chain by 2012.

The website’s real distinctive points are found elsewhere though. Firstly, the content reflects a real-time, unfolding process happening within the company. That makes it dynamic.

Secondly, and more importantly, it provides a creative incentive for customers to get involved. Start a car pool or begin recycling and Marks & Spencer will plant you a tree on which to display your pledges and monitor your progress.

“Giving easy ways for people to take action enables them to feel ownership and to feel part of the organisation,” says Chris Eaton, online community organiser for Greenpeace USA.

Campaign groups learned that long ago. Companies, at last, are cottoning on.

MySpace, your space?

Not every company can hope to become a favourite on Facebook or master MySpace. That should come as a relief to large companies grappling with the challenges of establishing their own corporate responsibility web presence or online social networks.

Yet the innovations of new media present new opportunities. Corporations need to think how they can adapt the social web to their own context and for their own ends.

Counter-intuitive though it may sound, narrowing the subject matter could widen the audience. The most successful social networks have one feature in common: they concentrate on specific, often quite niche, issues.

MTV’s invitation to submit “your big idea” on a napkin, for example, recently reached the MySpace homepage. Campaign group Wake Up Wal-mart at wants the US public to, well, wake up Wal-Mart.

By contrast, amorphous corporate responsibility sites attract amorphous corporate responsibility users. That’s all well and good for a specialist trade magazine, but not so great for a global brand looking to get its voice heard in cyberspace.

The world of digital communication is changing fast. But it remains communication all the same. The basic rules of any conversation – listening, sharing and mutual respect – still stand. As does the Climate Rush maxim: “Deeds not words”.

Top 10 social networking sites

1) Facebook
2) MySpace
3) Bebo
4) Friendster
5) hi5
6) Orkut
7) PerfSpot
8) Yahoo! 360
9) Zorpia
10) Netlog

So, what is social media anyway…?

Social media is the term commonly given to websites, online tools and other interactive communication technologies that allow users to interact with each other in some way – by sharing information, opinions, knowledge and interests. As the name implies, social media involves the building of communities or networks, encouraging participation and engagement.

Blogs are perhaps the most well-known example of social media, but the term encompasses other platforms. Examples include podcasts, wikis (such as Wikipedia), message boards, social bookmarking websites (such as, social networking websites (such as bebo and MySpace) and content sharing websites (such as flickr and YouTube).

Other terms for social media include social software, social computing and web 2.0.

Source: Chartered Institute of Public Relations

… and what do they say about it?

“CSR reports only get you so far. The average person is just not inclined to delve into a bunch of technical details in an 80-100 page report … CSR is everyone’s business, and we should communicate with that idea in mind.”
Kathleen Bannan, senior manager of corporate social responsibility
Posted on, McDonald’s CSR website

“Visitors comment on blogs because they feel strongly about the issues under discussion. And you know when they are real because they write badly.”
Peter Knight, president of Context America

“Social networking sites are what websites were ten years ago. Every company wants one, but they are not thinking about what they are going to do with it. It’s become the buzz thing.”
Ed Gillespie, creative director of Futerra

“Integrity is key to the ethical treatment of social media.”
Chartered Institute of Public Relations

“YouTube is immensely useful for creating a buzz around a campaign through the comments that people leave. We were initially cautious about this, but we soon realised that even critics could be an incredibly rich source of feedback.”
Christian Graham, web manager, Friends of the Earth UK

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