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Social activism

An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the Vietnam Investment Review (in Vietnamese)

That thousands of people took to the streets across Vietnam early May 2016 to protest the contamination of hundreds of kilometers of Ha Thinh province coastline was the culmination of a catalogue of errors by the alleged culprit – a Formosa Plastics steel plant – and the Vietnamese authorities, that inadvertently turned a serious incident into a major public crisis.

The spat also raises questions about how fit for purpose Hanoi and major companies in Vietnam are when it comes to managing disasters and crises.

When people first started complaining on Facebook about dead and rotting fish and shrimp in early April, Formosa Plastics initially said nothing and then denied wrong doing. Two weeks later a company PR official antagonised local fisherman by arguing the Vietnamese had to make a choice between catching and selling fish, or developing the steel industry.

Officials in Hanoi failed to make matters better by initially defending the company and then arguing there was no proof it was to blame and suggesting human discharge or ‘red tides’ of algae could be the problem, prompting local protesters to take to the streets and even to petition Barack Obama to launch an independent investigation. Vietnamese authorities were also found to be blocking Facebook and Instagram during the protests.

Perhaps Formosa Plastics and Hanoi were taken aback with good reason. After all, ordinary Vietnamese are little known for publicly opposing issues seen as detrimental to their interests and livelihoods, however controversial or potentially damaging they may be.

And thanks to highly controlled political, media and business environments, very few Vietnamese organisations have any experience of having to manage and defend their reputations in the open court of public opinion.

Yet one does not have to look far to see how the expectations and behaviours of citizens, consumers, local communities, activist groups and other stakeholder groups have been transformed by the internet and social media.

Even in China, any and all of these groups now regularly take to the social web to make their voices heard, galvanise support, raise funds and organise protests – virtual and physical. And they do so instantly and often in large numbers.

While China may have had considerable success limiting online chatter, institutions across the region are struggling to contain internet-based grassroots movements, despite the many tools and techniques available to block, limit or otherwise disrupt news, information and commentary.

With the accountability genie out of the bottle and with little way of stuffing it back in, how can governments and businesses better manage disasters and crises?

Fortunately, the strategies, tactics and techniques required to manage issues and crises in today’s flat, open, digital world are becoming steadily clearer. And while complaints, allegations and smoking guns frequently first manifest themselves online, the rules of how to deal with them as they escalate are not broadly similar to what they were before smartphones and Facebook took over.

Like for ‘traditional’ issues and crisis management, much comes down to good listening and having the ability to spot potential problems before they escalate into incidents or even crises, and the internal processes to be able to assess these issues quickly and thoroughly before identifying the appropriate response.

While there are many free tools that can help companies keep abreast of what’s being said about them and about issues relevant to them, there are also now a host of paid online and social media listening tools such as Synthesio, Meltwater or Vietnam’s Boomerang that enable companies to identify, track and analyse potential problems online in real-time.

Furthermore, the more sophisticated listening tools will send email or SMS alerts to team members when mentions of a given keyword or phrase hits a specified level, and/or turns from negative to very negative, enabling companies to hone in quickly on what really matters when it comes to assessment a problem: the motivation of the user, the credibility of the complaint or allegation, and the broader context in which it is being made.

Much also hinges on getting the response right, which can be challenging when everyone seems to be talking about the issue, it is quickly going viral, corporate leadership has gone missing and the scope for denying or ‘spinning’ a story is increasingly limited.

And in a medium that values emotion over facts, it is doubly important that the initial response to an escalating issue or a bone fide crisis gives the impression of openness and honesty, that it is being treated seriously and as a priority, and is crafted in a language and tone that ordinary people can understand, relate to and appreciate.

Had Formosa Plastics and the Vietnamese government responded quickly, honestly, constructively and empathetically to the pollution allegations in Ha Thinh province, they would far more likely have been given the benefit of the doubt. Instead, both found themselves caught in the headlights of searing public distrust and with little obvious place to turn for comfort.

UPDATE: Taiwan Formosa has admitted responsibility for the toxic spill, and will pay USD 500 million in compensation.

 

The web is now the medium of choice for campaign groups like Greenpeace, Oxfam and the WWF to raise funds, expand their networks, and mobilise supporters.

Little wonder: online pressure played no small part in Shell exiting its longstanding partnership with Lego, Nestlé reconfiguring its palm oil supply chain, SeaWorld halting its breeding of captive orcas, and the collapse in shark fin consumption in Hong Kong.

Then UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted that online pressure had ‘significantly influenced’ his decision on the Rupert Murdoch’s 2010 bid to take full control of BSkyB.

finishedwithfins

 

But it is not just the big campaign groups that have benefited. Once the preserve of students, tree huggers and political dissidents, activism is now the opium of suburban housewives and white collar workers across the world. It is particularly evident in the huge popularity of online petition sites:

  • Change.org counts over 140 million members in 196 countries
  • Avaaz boasts some 43 million members in 194 countries
  • Care2 has almost 35 million members
  • A UK member of parliament recently told me she receives dozens of emails every day supporting various causes from the 3 million+ members of 38 Degrees, all of which she feels compelled to respond to.

People power has never felt so real, or so daunting. And in an age in which business is increasingly expected to play the role of a concerned and actively engaged ‘citizen’, the numbers involved and the sheer unpredictability of public opinion raises real challenges and risks, as firms supporting ostensibly mainstream causes have discovered.

Drawing on discussions and interviews with Greenpeace, the WWF and high profile individual activists, I argue in my book Managing Online Reputation that online activism is now mainstream, activist networks are becoming more amorphous, and campaign groups are deliberately making their lines of attack less predictable, before going on to detail three current and emerging strategies and tactics used online in the ongoing battle for public support.

The relevant chapter – on the social and environmental threats of the web – is now available online as a free sample:

 

With propaganda swirling online, a Change.org petition fast escalating and Greenpeace all over your Facebook page, an online activist attack can feel terrifying and remorseless. But while some activist campaigns meet or even exceed their objectives, most fail to convince the public of their merits, or simply succumb to slacktivism.

How you choose to respond requires a close understanding of your detractors’ playbook, a smart reading of the public mood, and an appreciation of your tolerance for business and reputational risk – factors I’ll explore shortly.

Image courtesy of WWF Hong Kong