Informational Warfare – protect your reputation

Anyone in doubt about the impact of social media will have had to rethink their ideas after the Tunisian and Egyptian popular uprisings.

But is the tweet really mightier than the sword? Iran soon learned to curtail its impact and China and Libya, by shutting down mobile and internet services and using their internal security forces, prevented any sizeable demonstrations,

In the business world the BP Deepwater catastrophe was an undoubted PR disaster. To add to the company’s woes a tweeter began publishing from a bogus PR division within BP. As the world watched the marine disaster unfold the fake PR person published tweets about the canteen menu and other mundane issues. The satirical account of life within BP was followed by more people than followed the official BP twitter account.

The power of one man (in this case an aspiring comedian) and a laptop against a giant global corporation shows how the rules have changed. Critics and activists no longer need to have an institution behind them, This is what the military call asymmetric warfare – an uneven matching of resources which can nevertheless result in stalemate or worse – think the USA in Vietnam, think the soviets in Afghanistan.

And to make matters worse for businesses the critics don’t necessarily have to tell the truth, are probably emotionally driven because they are angry or desperate, and may also be irrational.

An article in the December 2010 issue of HBR suggests that businesses need to look at what the military are doing. After the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war the US Army War College Centre for Strategic Leadership and Canada’s SecDev Group carried out a review into what they called “informational warfare”. They found that although Hezbollah was mismatched in conventional military terms it had used social media to win “hearts and minds” (ironically a key part of psyops warfare) around the world and discredited the Israeli position.

SecDev scholars wrote a report called “Bullets and Blogs” in which they set out several principles which could be used to counter attack and which also apply to protecting corporate reputations. These were:

Avoid a disproportionate show of force: don’t come across as a bully. Companies are generally seen as Goliaths compared to individuals. It’s not a good idea to respond in an aggressive manner. A more considered, less emotional, response which shows you re listening and doing something about the problem pays dividends.

Train people to respond quickly: Companies can be slow to respond especially of they need to reach a consensus or call a board meeting to agree the content of a tweet. Having a media monitoring system and social media channels in place enables companies to respond quickly through key personnel.

Avoid bureaucracy and empower teams to respond: following on from the last point, the public would rather hear it from front-line staff than the board members. So letting staff blog about their experiences is a more trusted method. I’ve seen NHS web-sites with interviews with nurses and other clinical staff talking about their work. These testimonials can work. Even the US Army allows soldiers to post blogs (as long as they are not risking security) on ArmyStrongStories.com. General Freakly, in a podcast, basically said that if you trust soldiers to make daily life or death decisions you can trust them with social media.

Go rogue – apply the same tactics: New media are often seen as a threat rather than an asset. Used ethically however they can help neutralise criticism. Domino’s Pizza was badly affected by the YouTube video of a staff member doing unsavoury things with the food. Profits were hit and that particular store was closed. The company President apologised using YouTube reasoning that that’s where the audience was. That in itself created news which by chance also diverted attention away from the problem.

Use multipliers to echo your message: In the military force multipliers are things which amplify your strength. In media having 3rd party endorsements can add to your own efforts. Critics of cruise ships visiting Haiti after the earthquake were soon neutralised when independent organisations supported the cruise line which had invested heavily in the country already, were delivering relief supplies, and who had been asked by the government to continue visiting to help the local economy to recover.

Establish your credentials in advance: Of course all these things are made easier if you already have established yourself as an ethical, diverse, fair, organisation so that when you are attacked you can point to past successes or decisions.

With new media you now have less control over your corporate message so reputation management is even more important.

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