We live in a world where it is getting harder and harder to hide. For tens of thousands of years, people did bad stuff and no one ever found out.
And if you did something rotten and someone did find out, it was pretty simple–you could bribe him, threaten him, or hit him over the head with something heavy.
If you had important news to share, you had to get on a raft or a yak and ride around in the middle of the night telling people. Just imagine if Paul Revere had been some ordinary yokel and hadn’t owned a horse. We Yanks would still be drinking milk with our tea and the great American invention of orthodontia would never have come to pass.
Obviously, mass communication changes everything. When you have the printing press, you can nail up flyers that say “The King is a Fuckwit,” and sneak away before anyone cuts your head off.
When you have television, you can run ads that say “The King’s Health Plan Will Hurt Ordinary People Like Us.”
When you have the Internet, you can have a web site, www.thekingsucksdeadbats.com and figure out a way to drive some traffic to it.
And when you have a blog, you can gripe about poor treatment you received from the king, and eight people might read it. One of those eight people links to her blog. Six days later Boing Boing picks it up, and the next day you’re in the New York Times.
If you have something to hide in your business, this is a really crummy time. Do your support people hate their jobs? (And, p.s., are they following asinine policies?) Is your CEO a monomaniacal idiot? Are you a hundred miles from profitability and eight yards from running out of cash?
Someone is going to blog it. It might bob there unseen in the ocean of billions of blog posts. Or someone might link it to a blog with a little more authority, and within the week it’s like that nightmare you used to have where you were suddenly appearing on Must See TV in your underwear.
Uh, Meatball Sundae?
Seth Godin is publishing another book, which is good news. His topic is eerily reminiscent of meat cake (although we have a different take on what the metaphor means). Seth’s saying that taking a nice normal old-fashioned company founded on mass marketing and then sticking some new social media whipped cream on it makes, well, a meatball sundae. A combination no one wants, needs, or likes.
So the question is, if you’re a nice traditional meatball company — someone who makes detergent or soda pop, or cleans carpets or fixes brakes — does this transparency stuff still apply? Do you give a damn what the blogosphere, whatever the hell that is, thinks?
Unfortunately, yeah you do.
Most people who read blogs know about Kryptonite locks. Kryptonite, whose name became a painful bit of poetic irony, became synonymous with the scary new blogosphere taking down companies that didn’t get it. Someone found an important flaw in their product, it hit the blogs, and the company spent a couple of years digging out of a PR mess.
Here’s what Donna Tocci, PR manager for Kryptonite, said in a port-mortem:
Well, the Internet moves at real time but companies sometimes can’t — not won’t, but can’t. If we’d announced what we wanted to do before we had the back end in place and couldn’t back it up, that would have been the bigger PR nightmare, right?
So, we had to check with factories, find and work with a fulfillment house, find and work with a shipping company, research customs (this was a worldwide plan), talk with our distributors and get their input and concerns, create a space on our website for registrations and make sure the site could handle the traffic and then worry about whether or not all of the respective softwares could talk to each other (website, fulfillment house, shipper). There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done before announcing a plan like this with so many facets.
It’s not a bad answer, but here’s a little secret about corporate communications. Yes, you have to do a bunch of operational stuff to create a physical solution to a problem like this. That takes time. There’s a “can’t” involved.
Talking about it is not a can’t. Banging up a blog the same day you realize the problem is serious and getting a human being to field a whole bunch of questions is not a can’t. Creating an online journal of what you’re doing to fix the problem is not a can’t. These are won’ts.
It feels like a “can’t.” Your corporate counsel will insist on his god-given right to turn all of your posts to gibberish. Your marketing group will shriek about the brand. IT will tell you that they won’t support a blog platform that lives outside the system architecture.
I’ll tell you a secret. You can get the corporate counsel to map the land mines for you, instead of forbidding you to enter the territory. You can decide that brands are about more than tag lines and PMS values. You don’t need your IT guy’s help to slam together a simple, free blog on WordPress. Can’t is a compelling and expensive illusion.
According to that post-mortem I mentioned above, it turns out that a lot of stuff said about Kryptonite wasn’t true. People said that they were caught by surprise by the NYT story, that they hadn’t seen it coming because they didn’t monitor the blogosphere. Essentially, that Kryptonite got what they deserved because they were clueless.
If you don’t communicate, you’re considered clueless by default
I fully realize this is not fair. People should give your nice company the benefit of the doubt and trust that you’re working on it. Probably people should have cut Kryptonite, who seem like nice people, some slack. But they didn’t and they don’t.
Traditional PR and corporate communications are going through the same crisis traditional media is. The mechanisms are all different now. Stuff is more complicated. There aren’t any rules. Or if there are rules, no one can figure out what they are.
So now what?
Here’s what Seth had to say about it:
New Marketing — whipped cream and a cherry on top — isn’t magical. What’s magical is what happens when an organization uses the New Marketing to become something it didn’t used to be — it’s not just the marketing that’s transformed, but the entire organization.
If you’re responsible for the communication of a company of any size (and if you’re a sole proprietor, that means you), figure out now what you’re going to do to take care of the meatballs when someone hits you square in the face with a sundae’s worth of whipped cream.
Make the hard decisions now. Build the strength to face the brave new world. It doesn’t get easier once the whipped cream hits the fan.