Activism has become part of our everyday lives. From #MeToo to #BLM to #SarahEverardVigil, people are taking to the streets.
But the awareness and the organisation of those protests started online with small individual acts of support that collectively became movements. These days, communications professionals need to be better listeners, interpreters and navigators to avoid misunderstanding and misacting when faced with a new breed of multi-platform digital activists.
Clicktivism is shaping the world
‘Clicktivism’ is usually used as a somewhat pejorative term for those online whose involvement in an issue starts and ends with the change of their social media profile or clicking to support a petition. But this undermines the real impact these campaigns can have in achieving real world change.
For example, the increasing popularity of Change.org, a digital petition website, at the start of the 2010s, led to a range of positive stories and successes from the mass sharing of campaigns via social media and digital communications channels. In 2011 , half a million people added their name to a petition to help prevent England’s publicly owned forests and woodland from being privatised, forcing the UK Government into a U-turn.
For brands, there is a need for increased understanding of how public moods swing and how uprisings start, simmer and explode because consumers – and employees – are now more aware than ever of the influence they can have. Where a company could once greenwash their webpages with platitudes about making the world a better place, the public is now holding them to account. High-profile examples of this include Google employees complaining of its working practices and the #WayfairWallkout in which an employee objected to sales of his company’s furniture to a US border immigration camp. Both resulted in weeks of unwelcome international press coverage.
Simmering reputational Rrisk waiting to be exploited
However, not all crises blow up in an instant. There are slow-burn, smoldering risks that go unnoticed for long periods of time because we fail to notice or act on them. These risks won’t go away without meaningful organisational change. But is it within the remit of communications professionals to speak truth to power and tell senior leaders that this is a vulnerability you can’t fix with warm words? Do you remain silent and wait for the day when this whole thing blows up and everyone pretends it’s a surprise? Training for a complex narrative threat is a way to shine a spotlight on uncomfortable home-truths.
A 2020 study by Just Capital revealed that 70% of Americans want CEOs of large companies to take a stand on important social issues and 80% believe companies can be a positive force for change in society.
No wonder a brand may find itself snared in an issue – even one that seems remote from the business – because the public expects the company to take a stand. Moreover, activists will attempt to hijack the brand just because entangling it in their issue makes it news-worthy. Any past misdemeanour or out-of- context data can be all the hook that’s needed. A brand’s high-profile can be weaponised against it.
What does it mean?
With social media now a mosaic of warring clicktivist factions, plotting a path through a reputational minefield requires not only the knowledge that can be distilled into the communications crisis manual but the skills and awareness to know when to use that knowledge and when to see that it’s out-of-date.
A good analogy is that of a footballer who has been told to run down the pitch and kick the ball into the path of a running teammate: the instruction is the knowledge in the crisis manual but is the player practised enough to have the skill to execute it and do they have the experience to know when to pass and when to play on? An inaccurate kick or poorly timed pass results in failure, despite following procedure.
PR professionals must surely be used to dealing with poor timing from their bosses, like David Bonderman’s sexist comment in 2017 or Mike Ashley’s claim that Sports Direct stores were essential services during last year’s pandemic, but are you guarding against own goals in your own department?
Experience is everything
Communications training in 2021 requires an improved focus on sense-making and investigation. And not just in a crisis when you’re at the center of a tweetstorm. It’s about developing the ability in your teams to tune into the zeitgeist to identify trouble spots ahead of time to avoid a crisis. This ability won’t be found in the crisis bible. Indeed, this seemingly sixth-sense awareness is what separates top- performing communications professionals from the rest which we would typically associate with experience.
Our expectations are that people who have been in the job longer are better placed to deal with reputational issues, external and internal. Like chess masters, their heightened awareness and experience allows them to think several steps ahead and foresee the secondary, tertiary and longer-term effects of decisions made now. This ability to see further down the road is more necessary in today’s connected world when the proverbial butterfly effect means a tweet in Sydney can cause a twitterstorm in Manchester and a factory blockade in Warsaw.
Fast-tracking your team’s experience
E-learning environments and seminar-style PowerPoint-driven snooze-fests won’t develop experience; at best they’ll only verify procedure. Fast-tracking your team’s experience requires an experiential simulation environment that realistically mimics today’s information space. Brands need a dynamic environment that allows the team to interact with an evolving and changing situation in the same way it would in real life. A new realistic training environment for today’s threats.
To be crisis-ready today means understanding complex interconnected human systems and how narratives flow across platforms. Understanding which does not come from the crisis manual. It comes from experience that can be fast-tracked through advanced social media simulation and virtual information environments. Failure to train for today’s clicktivist world means being forever vulnerable to a misunderstanding of global proportions.