Monday, February 28, 2011

Anti-corporate activism through social media: how Greenpeace is leading the way

As events in the Middle East have shown, social media can play a critical role in connecting up protesters around a common cause. Whilst in this context the aims are political and the targets are state leaders, over in the world of business, companies are also finding themselves the unwitting subjects of campaigns fueled by social media.   And leading the way in exploiting new technology to confront companies is Greenpeace. After having claimed the scalp of Nestle last year with its viral Kit-Kat ad that prompted the company to change its sourcing of palm oil, Greenpeace has also recently rolled out its "Polluter Harmony" campaign in Canada to confront government support of oil sands companies. Last week, it claimed another victory with the US retailer Costco announcing a major sustainable seafood initiative after a Greenpeace campaign featured the company in a series of videos going through an "Ocean destroyers anonymous' program. And now, it has set its sights on the social media giant itself, Facebook.

Greenpeace is no stranger to the use of new technology in anti-corporate activism. As Ethical Corporation reports, the organization was propelled onto the world stage by its use of live video footage from its campaign ship in the mid 1990s. The organization also led the way in using YouTube videos to target companies, such as its Kimberly Clark campaign back in 2004. Since then Greenpeace has continued to exploit developments in new media to get its message across and engage people in its campaigns against big companies. For example, a 2009 campaign against an extension to Heathrow airport involved setting up a 'Join the Plot' website that enabled some 90,000 people around the world to become "beneficial owners" of land earmarked for the new runway, thereby giving them the right to be represented at any future inquiries about the extension. Plans to extend the airport were subsequently shelved by the UK Government.

The Kit-Kat YouTube spoof, which was part of a concerted campaign to stop companies sourcing from the Indonesian palm oil supplier Sinar Mas, was so successful that it made it into our top 10 stories of last year. As Greenpeace put it, “With nearly 1.5 million views of our Kit Kat advert, over 200,000 e-mails sent, hundreds of phone calls and countless Facebook comments, you made it clear to Nestle that it had to address the problems with the palm oil and paper products it buys.”  And, lo and behold, it did.

The latest campaigns have so far garnered attention, and no doubt ruffled a few feathers, but it remains to be seen what kind of success they've actually achieved. The Polluter Harmony campaign was started in the US in time for Valentine's Day 2010. This February, attention switched to Canada after the Environment Minister Peter Kent started extolling the virtues of the 'ethical' oil sands. It's a well executed campaign featuring toe curling spoof videos of big company bosses and politicians (or 'tar-crossed lovers' as the Canadian declaring their love for each other in the form of those nauseating love match clips used by online dating sites such as e-harmony. Similar in style are the Costco videos portraying the company as an initially in-denial 'ocean destroyer' who eventually completes the 6-step program on sustainable fishing and graduates from rehab. They've generated thousands rather than 10s or 100s of thousands of views, so in social media terms have not exactly taken off, but all the same have clearly been a nagging irritant for the company.

And then there's Facebook. Here the tool isn't just social media, so is the target. It's a smart piece of media planning for Greenpeace to be attacking Facebook through, well ... Facebook. The main focus is a Facebook page urging the company to 'Unfriend Coal' as a power source for its new data centre. Featuring a cute logo that uses the iconic Facebook thumbs up (and thumbs down), as well as a cheeky (or maybe just annoying) video that apes the "Story of Stuff" technique to remix the Social Network the campaign is gradually going viral. The page now has some 60,000 friends and the video has been played almost half a million times on YouTube.

But its not just the numbers we should be looking at here. The interesting things about the Greenpeace social media campaigns is the way they manage to harness the power of new technology to get people to do more than just click 'like' or watch a 2 minute video. Here's a few of the things we think they're doing right:

Using social media to get people on the ladder of participation. Joining a Facebook group doesn't represent much in terms of participation, but issues like coal, seafood, runways or toilet paper aren't all that interesting. So it's critical to make it easy for people to get involved, to get their foot on the first rung of the ladder of participation, before engaging them further. Greenpeace has been adroit at engaging .. and then educating ... through providing extensive resources, constant updating of new material, and encouraging people to go go higher up the ladder. Once people know more, there's a better chance they'll participate more and write an email, join a protest, or create their own activist videos or photos.

Mixing earnestness with wit and irony. Activist groups believe passionately in what they do. and the issues they deal with are often ugly and unpleasant. So it's no surprise that their way of communicating is  a preachy form of earnestness. But that often doesn't work with social media where attention spans are small and content is typically "lite". Greenpeace has been effective in using wit and irony in its "lower rung" communications coupled with a more earnest voice once people's interest has been pricked. That combination is something other organizations, including companies, have struggled with.

Creative imitation. Like it or not, but in terms of getting a message across about big brands, parody works. Spoof ads, Facebook icons, dating websites - Greenpeace knows how to leverage the tools and brands of big business to communicate to the public. But it does so in a creative way that helps them stand out from a busy field. As academics, we'd be tempted to call this intertextuality - where the codes or meaning of one text are transferred or re-produced in another.

Fitting social media into a broader strategy.With all the hype around social media it's easy to forget that it's just one tool among many, and just one part of a broader strategy to achieve an organization's aims. Greenpeace appears to have been successful in deploying social media as part of a social change strategy that also involves direct dialogue with companies, developing new solutions, and tackling issues at a policy level.

And a couple of things they could still do better:

End of life 'take-back'. OK, it's not the same as letting your e-waste end up poisoning someone in Africa, but the artifacts of social media also tend to stay around a long time, especially online videos and webpages. Once a company like Nestle or Costco has changed its policy, Greenpeace might want to think about what it should do with all the critical content it has left out there that is no longer an accurate picture of reality. Taking videos down from your own website is one thing, but a successful "push strategy" can leave content lurking all over the web. We like the latest Greenpeace video 'Changes' celebrating Costco's success following the 5-step program - it's a real step in the right direction - but do they have a policy on what should be done about all the rest of the stuff they've produced and disseminated?

Further integration. So far, Greenpeace has been better at creating new content than linking it all up, especially between its different campaigns and across countries. It's a difficult challenge, especially in a network form of organization like Greenpeace International, and where you're trying to talk in (at least) two different voices. But greater integration can pay-off in terms of clarifying the message and capitalizing on successes. Given how far they have come already, it doesn't look to be beyond them. Though maybe that's just another of the secrets of success in social media - the courage to give up control.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

‘Baron zu Googleberg’

Our last blog looked at the role social media and other internet or mobile based communications technologies and their role in shaping a somewhat new, ideology-free form of revolution in Egypt. One of our readers hinted to Malcolm Gladwell’s comment on the web edition of the New Yorker which poured some water into the wine of excitement about the potential of new technology. And what we saw from Yemen, Bahrain and other Arab countries this week seems to add to the perspective: it is not just new media which makes revolutions inevitable. There are still a number of other factors which mediate the eruption and impact of widespread discontent in the Middle East.

On a different note though, last week has shown the power of the internet for holding politicians accountable in a somewhat new and quaint context. Since a couple of years, Germany has a new rising star in politics, the current Secretary of Defence Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (his real name runs over half a page of nobility titles and stuff – we spare you this). He is young (39), smart and eloquent, good looking, filthy (old money-) rich as a Baron with a long ancestry of Franconian nobility, boasts a beautiful wife and cute kids and so far has done quite a good job as a federal top politician in Berlin. He is well connected, also beyond Germany and one of the few German politicians who can actually talk coherently in English (then Industry Secretary). Many touted him for future Chancellor (German for Prime Minister).

Earlier last week though events took an ugly turn. Andreas Fischer-Lescano, a law professor from Bremen University, published a book review of Guttenberg’s recently published PhD thesis in some law review. Initially drawn to the work by scholarly interest – the book is a comparative study of constitutional law in the US and Europe – he had some strange déjà-vu’s while reading Guttenberg’s 435-page tome. He googled a few paragraphs which appeared familiar and as a result, he published in the appendix to his review dozens of passages, where Guttenberg had just copied and pasted newspaper articles, speech manuscripts and journal papers. Of course without any citation, any reference and without even mentioning most of them in his 50-page reference list. Immediately, an online community of bloggers and researchers zoomed in on the case. The immediately set up website ‘GuttenPlag Wiki’ so far has digged up around 120 alleged incidents of plagiarism in Guttenberg’s PhD.

Now one has to consider that in Germany carrying a ‘Dr.’ in front of your name - rather than indicating academic ambitions – is, however, by now almost a requisite to enter the higher echelons of politics and business. So getting the title by what now appears to be a thesis rampant with plagiarized parts is no small feat. No wonder this lead to widespread debate about whether such a cheating and disingenuous individual could still be in such senior political role. Especially as his brand was very much predicated on being ‘authentic’, ‘straightforward’ and ‘genuine’ – unlike all those clichés the public normally harbours about the political class. The glee about ‘zu Copyberg’, ‘Baron Cut-and-Paste’ or ‘zu Googleberg’ is limitless in European media.

Now the interesting thing about this is not necessarily the fact that we come across yet another sleazy politician. Fair enough, if the allegations are true, zu Guttenberg has cheated and there is no way he could keep his degree. More serious, it now came out that he also used the Parliamentary Research department and pasted their reports into his PhD - without any reference. In fact, suspicions that the whole tome was written by a Ghostwriter are now popping up all over the web. The Minister has announced on Friday: "I will temporarily, I repeat temporarily, give up my doctoral title." Crisis management German style.

The really interesting story in our view though is the pivotal role the internet has played in this case. The initial review in the law journal was only possible because some young guy in a provincial university was able to use Google and other software to detect plagiarism comprehensively. And the subsequent frenzy of research online which discovered even more incidents of plagiarism just put up the heat on Guttenberg. Politicians – like most of us these days – are so much more transparent and thus also accountable for their legacy and actions – just because technology empowers ‘normal’ citizens to access so much more information. One of the funnier incidents in cypberspace is the facebook page on this (‘If Guttenberg has a Doctor, I want one too!’) or the new keyboard designed for PhDs a la Guttenberg - with all keys removed except the 'c'ut and 'v'-paste ones...

The lessons from this are clear. Yes, it still matters how people think, what ethical convictions drive them and what values are held in high regard. For many other places in the world, this scandal just sounds a little quaint, German, parochial. In the Anglo-Saxon World, politicians are more prone to fall over irregularities in their love life. But the dynamics and the mechanics of political processes – be it the fairly prosaic plagiarism in the PhD thesis of a German politician or the far more substantial way of organising a revolution in Egypt – are fundamentally altered by the way we can access, process, analyse and distribute information these days. Kadhafi’s shoutdown of social media in Libya today just seems to underline this point.

Needless to say, that those cases also raises some challenging implications for private corporations, whose ethical behaviour now - just by dint of the technical means - faces a new wave of transparency. But that's a topic for a whole now blog, we guess.

Photo by isafmedia. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Egypt and the revolutionaries with MBA degrees

Like many of you we have been glued at times to the TV screens these last days. Seeing the masses assembling on Tahrir Square in Cairo asking for a peaceful transition to democracy in one of the biggest Arab nations is something of a watershed. For too long we in the West were just used to taking for granted that, well, if it comes to politics, the Arab world is a wholly different story. And the botched attempts to parachute ‘democracy’ into Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to underline this notion.

But now, the chips on the table seem to be mixed for a whole new round. This being a business ethics blog, lets first work through some of those issues with regard to recent developments in Egypt. Let’s look at the upshot. The current revolution would not have been possible without new media –or social networking companies. Twitter, Google, Facebook were instrumental in coordinating, organizing and network the protest movement. All of which, of course, are private companies.

We think it’s a good time to give Google some credit – especially as we have taken them to task in some of or our earlier blogs every now and then. One of their executives actually became a leader in the movement, which so far has shown little signs of a coordinated effort. Google – symbolically represented by Wael Ghonim, their marketing executive for the Middle East, has become a pivotal player in the ‘revolution’ in Egypt. The support of social media has been vital – even after the Egyptian government closed down internet communication. It was then when Twitter opened the ‘SayNow’ feature, allowing sending messages via telephone. As Ghonim pointed out himself in an interview with ABC's 60 Minutes program, much of the pressure to free him from his 12 days in solitary confinement by the Egyptian police came from his employer Google itself. All in all then, we have seen private businesses ‘enabling’ civil and political rights, much along the lines of one our most cited papers.

In a similar vein, some companies have also collected some shame. Vodafone’s network was used by the existing Egyptian authorities to send compulsory messages to their users in support of the system. Vodafone’s explanations do not sound very convincing. When has a major multinational accepted an abuse of their assets lately? Looking at the way Vodafone has managed its business so far, not at least the vociferous determination it applied to their takeover of Mannesmann in Germany years ago, their complicity in this approach sounds less than convincing. Framing themselves as a helpless victim just doesn’t wash.

Leaning back and comparing the current uprising in Egypt (and other Arab countries) to, say the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe 20 years ago, there are some remarkable differences now. Apart from such accidental leaders like Wael Ghonim – who does not intend to play a bigger role in Egyptian politics and just wants to go back to work – it really was a ‘leaderless rebellion’. No particular persons, organisations, ideologies or religious groups can be identified to have fuelled the process. Ghonim told ABC’s 60 Minutes program that ‘we don’t understand politics’. He is not a trade unionist (like Poland’s Lech Walesa), nor a writer or artist (such as the Czech Vaclav Havel), but a marketing executive with an MBA from the American University in Cairo. The MBA as a degree which provides skills for being a revolutionary? – who would have thought!

The success of the movement seems to lie in a combination of people agreeing on a minimal demand (to get rid of Mubarak) and a new set of very efficient tools (social media) to coordinate this effort. Internet and mobile communication played a pivotal role, not at least also because it allowed considerable exchange of knowledge and experience among a global group of activists in Tunisia, Serbia and the US. Pragmatism and access to new forms of information sharing seem to be the two crucial ingredients of this latest revolution.

This said, some big questions however are yet to be answered. First, will this movement spread? Today’s news from Iran, Yemen, Bahrain seem to point in this direction, but it appears that those regimes tend to be more ready and unequivocal in their resort to using force against the protesters. The second question of course points to – however spectacular the fall of Mubarak by peaceful means may be – what will succeed these regimes? To build democracy will take time and allowing people elections is just a first step. Signs are that the new Egyptian politics stays on its pragmatic course: Where else have we ever seen the revolutionaries coming back to their square of victory and, after their job of toppling the regime was done, cleaning up with broom and shovel the garbage left behind by peaceful protest?

Photo by Ahmad Hammoud. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence