Leading US PR academic Timothy Coombs, who will be NEMO Visiting Professor at Campus Helsingborg this Autumn, argues that social media is transforming activism with its ability to target corporate reputation.
In the latest NEMO/ISK seminar, Tim gave many examples of how and why large organisations are positioning themselves to respond to activism that threatens reputation, a claim reinforced by the amount of money being spent on monitoring the online activity of stakeholders. Spending patterms suggest that the greatest perceived threat seems to comes from social networks rather than, say, blogs.
“Social media has fundamentally transformed activism. It has become part of the what they do and what they are,” he said.
Activism is sustained by the need to recruit and retain supporters, and to integrate them into the activist community. They use social media internally to sustain themselves and then externally to meet larger goals of social reform.
Activists are a unique group of stakeholders because they can be customers or employees. They see themselves as agents of change.
Campaigns often begin with claims that organisation is acting in a irresponsible manner, and such claims can do great harm to brand identity. (Volkswagen/Darth Vader).
Traditional activism depended heavily on the news (legacy media), but this no longer the focal point for many campaigns. The media advocacy model carries an inherent risk that messages can be distorted or overlooked. To get noticed, the tactics need to be extreme, and this can overshadow and obscure the message. Sometimes, the actions themeselves work to marginalise the campaign. (ie the Battle for Seattle).
Now, social media allows activists to focus less on creating pseudo events as the focal point of activity, and their actvities can carry greater legitimacy than, say, street protest.
Reputation is an asset corporations care about and that will attract legacy media coverage. Reputation offers a leverage point, and its effectiveness increases as corporations place increasing value on repuatation.
It is also easier to sustain an online protest than a physical protest, and can be both visible and quantifiable.
Tim gave examples of successful campaigns, including the Greenpeace Detox campaign, which employed social media focus to reputation pressure points on clothing brands such as H&M, whilst at the same time making demands that they knew manufacturers could meet.
Download Tim Coombs presentation (pdf) Social Media Infused Activism Coombs