Social media crisis caused by activists: the deconstruction of corporate discourse

Carlos Victor Costa PhDLast week, I presented my PhD thesis in Madrid, and I am happy that it obtained a Cum Laude mark. The key themes of the thesis are crisis management, social media, branding and reputation, which I approached using a study case and content analysis of a major advertising campaign aired in 2011 by a Spanish bank. This campaign was ridiculed by social media users, especially in Twitter, and was also a target of a YouTube parody video.

In recent years, there have been several incidents happening to prestigious brands similar to this one. Chevron´s “We agree” (2010) was mocked by activist-perfomers The Yes Men, who partnered with the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch to create a fake version of the campaign that was erroneously picked up by the media as authentic. More recently, other “faux pas” examples could be found on February this year when Coca-Cola was forced to withdraw a Twitter advertising campaign after a counter-campaign by Gawker tricked it into tweeting large chunks of the introduction to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And this week, it was IBM that faced social media´s fury: IBM has discontinued a campaign encouraging women to get into technology by asking them to “hack a hairdryer”, which the company admitted the campaign “missed the mark for some” and apologised.

How (and why) a communication initiative can be a factor of risk for the company’s brand instead a factor of improvement? This was one of the main questions I wanted to understand with my research. Basically, what I found was:

A primary goal for corporate communication, used as a management function, is to facilitate relationships and symbolic exchanges with the stakeholders of an organisation, and thus establish and maintain a favourable reputation. Increasingly, corporate communication has taken on a more strategic role within organisations in order to help to legitimate them among its stakeholders through impression management techniques. However, at the same time the context of corporate communications has been levelled off by the proliferation of content generated by users on the Internet that also affects stakeholder’s perceptions, through framing techniques.

When this happens, social media can empower consumer and other stakeholder’s resistance, especially social movements, creating reputational risks and crises caused or amplified by online social networks. Organisations must be concerned about these “paracrises” (as Coombs defines it) and their reputation and legitimacy due to the evolution of the concept of Surveillance Society, where anyone with a mobile phone can “surveil the surveillers”.

Organisations are increasingly subject of higher public scrutiny by social networks whose members have a strong distrust in corporate discourse and can build and share a counter-discourse. Through their actions on the Internet, social networking operatives make organisations more publicly vulnerable by exposing the contradictions of the corporate rhetoric and creating antagonistic frames for the corporate discourse.

My thesis addressed a paradigmatic case study that took place in Spain with a large bank and its major advertising campaign which aired in 2011 during the global financial crisis. Similar to the examples mentioned in the beginning of this post, this campaign was heavily criticised (but it was not pulled). Through the analysis of messages dispersed via Twitter during the campaign period, I found empirical evidence that shows how corporate discourse can be deconstructed by social media users, which is a basic principle of online activists and its repertoire of confrontation. What I found is that when a company does not take into consideration the shared cognitive capital of the message recipients and the social context in which the organisation operates they are more vulnerable to be contradicted by messages disseminated by social media users that, naturally, question the credibility and intentions of the source and its corporate messages.

In cases with these characteristics, communications does not act as a positive force in favour of the brand and the reputation of the organisation. It works contrary to what is expected, i.e. it is a shoot in the foot.

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