The Economist on ‘The blog in the corporate machine’

The article The blog in the corporate machine from this week’s edition of The Economist is focusing squarely on managing corporate reputations in a blogging world, and is interesting for a number of reasons.

Words, words, words

Words are important, as bloggers would probably agree, and the choice of words in a mainstream article matters. This is the first time I have seen the term “social media” used in this type of publication to describe blogs and other online media.

The spread of “social media” across the internet—such as online discussion groups, e-mailing lists and blogs—has brought forth a new breed of brand assassin, who can materialise from nowhere and savage a firm’s reputation. Often the assault is warranted; sometimes it is not. But accuracy is not necessarily the issue.

It is not a bad term, but I am not completely happy with it. It would be nice to be able to separate between private social media (think dating sites like Match.com or environments like Friends Reunited.com) from public social media such as political blogs, sites devoted to social responsibility, environmental concerns, or single-issue advocacy.

We might want to call the latter civil media, using civil in the sense of “of or relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns”, as the New Oxford Dictionary defines it. (I am still a little unhappy with the etymological reference to cities and legally recognized subjects of nation states, concepts that are increasingly irrelevant in a global connected world, but it is the best I can find.)

It is also interesting that the article can use the term “blogosphere” without feeling it needs to define it. Dictionary compilers of the world, take note, and also observe the use of “blogorrhea”.

Managing complexity

But on to the main content of the article. It makes an important point about why civil media is so difficult for corporates to engage with: the groups who engage in this form of media are “harder to identify, appease and control”:

When a company is dealing directly with a [traditional stakeholder such as a] labour union or an environmental outfit, its top brass often take the easy route, by co-opting the leaders or paying some sort of Danegeld. Until a couple of decades ago, that meant doling out generous union contracts and sticking shareholders, taxpayers or consumers with the bill.

That’s why I like The Economist: They don’t mince their words.

The problem, then, is one of management complexity. You can’t easily buy off a loosely-coupled set of people with little or no formal organization. This is not limited to civil media: ask anyone who had tried to negotiate with animal or ecological activists, or with (other) terrorists.

Managing complexity is hard, and there is a dearth of managers who can handle it and who thrive in a highly interconnected environment. Let’s face it: most managers became managers by stopping doing useful work. We’ve talked about the changing organization before, and one thing it needs are practicing leaders: managers who lead from the front line, as opposed to from headquarters. Many professional services firms are structured like this (at least in principle) and are often used by commentators as a model for the new organization.

So if the simple expedient of paying Danegeld is not an option, what is a company to do? I guess there are two possible answers. In history, the English defeated the Viking troops in 1066 (yes, that year: after the battle the army had to run down to Hastings to get killed by the Normans) and engaged in at least two rounds of what can only be described as ethnic cleansing against the “foreigners”. The modern equivalent would be to use legal systems to suppress a free debate. Outlaw bloggers or, if that is not possible, certainly sue them to make it economically disastrous to challenge the corporation, and support law and controls to identify and hold responsible those who write.

Analysis

Not surprisingly, The Economist favors a more liberal approach:

Increasingly, companies are learning that the best defense against these attacks is to take blogs seriously and fix rapidly whatever problems they turn up.

However, telling people to engage doesn’t solve the complexity problem. For this, the article proposes analysis.

At one level: Doh! That is how we tend to handle complexity. Analyze and reduce. We’ve been involved in research, analysis, and insight for over 15 years. Originally companies relied mostly on internal data, then we added external data sets such as demographics, and now we are increasingly looking at even broader sets of data, including the blogosphere and other civil media. The data is there and the insights that lead to actionable business changes are for the taking, all you got to do is ask (and not take “no” for an answer—more in another article). I promise it will change your business, if you are serious about managing in a complex, interconnected world.

On another level, the article is a nice advertising for Buzz Metrics and does describe some of the results that people are getting and some of the challenges.

The article is well worth a read. And when you have read it, think about this: are you embracing complexity or running away from it? If the former: congratulations, you are part of tomorrow. If the latter: you are dead, you just don’t know it yet.