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Friday, September 14, 2012

New technologies and the power of the few

This week, the world witnessed the other side of the "Arab Spring" ... Hardliners, from Tunis to San'a, from Benghazi to Cairo, exploited the sheer stupidity of a misguided and hateful petty crook in California, turned "film maker".

The "Innocence of Islam" episode shows the power now at the disposal of almost anyone, to do some very good stuff ...or in this case, some serious damage. All it took, is 14 minutes of preview, shared on Youtube ... re-shared on other social networks ... to spark anti-US sentiments across the whole Mideast
It shows how U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century is at risk of being derailed by a single, pseudonymous fraudster. In the 1990s, Marine Gen. Charles Krulak famously coined the phrase “The Strategic Corporal” to describe how a 19-year old Leatherneck’s actions, broadcast worldwide, could derail U.S. interests. Meet Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the Strategic Con Man.
The article on Wired.com illustrates the evolution of the "strategic corporal" concept in the age of social media. Now, almost anyone, or anything, can come up suddenly and threaten an organization's reputation or very existence. In some extreme cases, the very lives of its members might be in jeopardy.

My good friend Gerald Baron has already written about crises that go "viral".  His main point is being prepared. I'd venture to say that any measures taken to reach that degree of preparation should include: 

  • Basic, daily social media listening or business intel gathering 
  • a process put in place to action any intel that merits a reaction
  • delegation of authority to put in motion your response
  • identifying and using the right channels to reach your key stakeholders 
  • training every member of your organization in basic media relations and crisis management ... just enough so they know how to refer calls/queries ...
A few caveats. Despite the best plans and preparation, sometimes you just can't win. In this case, anti-US feelings run deep in large segments of the Middle East. All the speeches and calls for calm by President Obama and Secretary Clinton might be for naught.

Also, decentralizing or not having tight control over your crisis communications response might itself lead to more issues ... a quick social media counter-attack could also put your on dangerous grounds:
The State Department has come under criticism in the past for being slow to adapt to the social-media world. It didn’t have that problem in Cairo: Its Twitter and Facebook engagement was rapid and consistent. But that rapidity may have outraced its more traditional diplomatic responsibilities to insist on the inviolability of its Embassy and to stick up for basic American values — even when the speech in question is gross.
You can't respond at a tactical level by undermining your strategic posture. That's the conclusion of the Wired.com article where the above quote came from.

In the end, vigilance and preparation are the only tools at your disposal to see you through a crisis gone viral ... and some gumption to stick with your plans and by your principles ...When social media is used for nefarious purposes, they can become deadly weapons in the hands of those who wish you harm.