Friday, August 20, 2010

Don't Get Hijacked!

I've been seeing a lot of tell-tale signs on my Facebook pages and in Twitter lately that had me scratching my head.  After doing some research, I had an "ah-ha!" moment and decided to share some of my thoughts on what I perceive as a common threat to anyone handling their own PR or social media.

I'm talking about two things here:

1.  The Target Boycott
2.  Campaign Hijacking

To be fair, even though I started seeing the "Boycott Target" posts on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't completely sure what the fuss was about.  Many of the posts were vague, the links were to confusing sites and in some cases, there was simply an icon that represented the Target boycott but with no follow-up information.
I had to go do my own research on the subject.  It didn't take long, a simple google news search and I felt I understood the issue.  This was clearly an example of social media doing its job.  It caught my eye after several postings and forced me to go out and find the information so I would be fully informed.

To that, I say, "Kudos!"  

Social movements can be extremely effective in terms of raising awareness and spreading a message.  Every day I'm hit with posts and links asking me to remember the starving children in Africa, to honor breast cancer survivors, to give to one organization or another.  Sometimes I click on the link, most of the time I don't.  Regardless, simply by reading the post, whether it's on Facebook or Twitter, the subject has, at least temporarily, been brought to my attention.

Non-profits can, and should use social media more often than they do to motivate thousands of others who share the same beliefs to help raise awareness.  I think I'm pretty much a great example of the common consumer in America, and I can honestly say that while a single posting may not catch my eye, several postings generally will move me to click a link or at least try to educate myself on the issues involved.

This is the power of social media.  A single news report can go unnoticed or be missed completely.  However if a handful of my friends begin posting on the same subject, I begin to take notice.  Something similar happened a few months ago when suddenly my Facebook and Twitter were both inundated with postings about breast cancer.  It was something very simple.  People started posting what, to me, looked like random numbers and colors.  I was confused.  There were so many postings that I finally had to ask what the hell was going on.  Within minutes I had 20-plus messages telling me it was to raise awareness of breast cancer. 

For the next two days, every time I saw a post similar to those that caught my eye, I knew it was about breast cancer.  It was impossible to ignore. 

Which brings us back to the Target boycott.  If you aren't aware of the boycott or the reasons behind it, click on this link to the Minnesota Pioneer Press for some background.  Essentially it boils down to a political donation given by Target to an anti-gay politician.

Boycotts tend to be polarizing to begin with.  It's an "us against them" situation that will divide people along idealistic lines.  But more important than the boycott itself, the originators of the boycott were likey more interested in simply raising awareness of Target's actions.  Most boycott organizers understand that boycotts are rarely effective, at least from a monetary point of view.  The most successful aspect to most boycotts is that it raises awareness of the actions of the ones being boycotted.

I know that Coca Cola, McDonalds and Disney participate in actions that I find deplorable.  I know these things because of previous boycotts against these organizations.  These boycotts forced me to look up the issues, do my own research and find out exactly what kind of employment, civil rights or political practices these companies indulge in.  And while I still will buy some Coke products, and I've been known to slam down a Quarter Pounder every now and then (I still won't shop at Wal-Mart) I do so with a better understanding of what is going on around me. 

If nothing else, the boycott of Target should have raised awareness of the company's support of anti-gay politics.  Instead, the movement was hijacked and has become the center of a much larger political fight, one where the intial message has nearly been lost completely.

Move.On's Movement:

A quick note here before we go forward:  I do not belong to MoveOn.org, nor any other political activist group.  I claim no party affiliation and this blog is not mean to side with any side in the political spectrum.  This space is merely meant to observe, educate and inform in the subjects of public relations and social media.

There that's done.  I normally have very little problem with MoveOn.  I don't dislike their message generally even though I often find myself at odds a bit with their methods of spreading their message.  Like some environmental groups or PETA, it's not really the message that outrages folks, it's the delivery.  Sadly, the message is overlooked by the stunts pulled by these extremely activist organizations.

Something similar has happend to the "Boycott Target" effort, and it happened as soon as MoveOn got involved.  I'll say one thing for groups like MoveOn and PETA; they certainly know how to attract attention.  They are masters at getting publicity and raising awareness of a particular issue.  Unfortunately, in many cases where these organizations get involved, the message takes a back seat and the organizations become the story. 

In this case, MoveOn has created online ads, videos, banners, posts and other collateral meant to raise awareness of the political donations of Target, particularly it's CEO, who is admittedly very conservative.  Taken by themselves, these efforts are excellent use of social media and PR.  However, when a group as polarizing as MoveOn becomes involved, its opponents immediately mobilize to strike back. 

What ensues is a series of name-calling, personal attacks and a clouding of the real issue.  The losers in this are the ones that simply wanted to create a grassroots campaign to raise awareness of which politicians Target was giving money to. 

Furthermore, MoveOn has a separate agenda than the original organizers of the boycott.  MoveOn is deeply involved in politics and is working hard to get progressive or Democratic candidates elected in the upcoming midterm elections.  To MoveOn, this is simply one more opportunity to help their cause.  To those opposing the boycott or MoveOn, this also is a political battle for an elected seat in government.  The actual topic of who Target gave money to and why is being lost in the all the rhetoric. 

In fact, the boycott seemed to be working on some level, forcing investors to question the political contributions of the retail giant and even nudging Target executives to the negotiation table with representatives from the Human Rights Campaign.  The HRC was calling for Target to pull back it's $150,000 donation or at the very least make an in-kind contribution to a pro-gay rights candidate or organization.  But once MoveOn became involved, Target execs pulled away realizing that regardless of what actions they took, they would continue to be hammered by MoveOn, so why make an effort of goodwill at all.

Certainly awareness has been raised and Target will lose some money at least from gays and their supporters across the U.S.  But what was meant to be a simply awareness campaign has become a campaign battleground for idealogues and political parties.

On A Smaller Scale:

Hijacking of a campaign happens all the time.  Usually it's not on this grand of a scale, but it happens and as a small business owner or non-profit you have be aware of it before you lose control of your good efforts.

We know that nothing happens in a vacuum.  Generally when a small business or non-profit gets involved in a campaign, others are either impacted, or involved on some level.  Say you own a small bike shop and you create a campaign to encourage more people to ride bikes (and hence buy more bikes or get them serviced more often).  Part of your campaign might be that bike riding is healthier or a great way to get in shape.  Or maybe you want to encourage a "greener" lifestyle.  Either way, your efforts could catch the eye of other organizations that have similar goals. 

It would not be surprising to see a non-profit approach you about joining forces to spread the message about a greener or healthier lifestyle.  It makes sense and, in reality, it's a good idea to join forces when possible.  But beware when you do that the goal of your "partner" might not be your goal. 

Your messages may be similar but your goals are different.  You want to help bring business through your doors.  Their goal is to promote a healthier or greener lifestyle, it doesn't matter if your shop makes money.  To them, you're success is secondary to their mission.

This doesn't mean you should take on partners when considering a campaign.  In fact, in many cases a partnership can be very beneficial to both parties.  You can work together to reach new audiences, fund a larger campaign and spread your message through channels you otherwise might not have been able to use. 

But if and when you take on a partner to help with your efforts, make sure from the very beginning that your messages and your goals are compatible.  In the end, it comes down to money.  The "partner" may be willing to pony up a lot of cash to help fund the campaign, but know that if they do this, they likely will feel entitled to make decisions that you don't always agree with, despite the fact that the effort and idea was yours in the first place.

An Example:

I have a client that is a non-profit and, thus, has a board of directors who sits in judgement of the organizations actions and decides on funding.  This non-profit wanted to create a social media campaign with a distinct message and aimed at helping many other, smaller not-for profit organizations that all work towards the same goal. 

The problem is, there are members of the board who's goals aren't exactly in line with the goals of the campaign.  It's not that they are against the campaign or against the smaller organizations involved, they simply have an agenda that is slightly differet than that of the campaign.

In this instance, the campaign was created with a particular message in mind.  The board, however, rejected the message and required a change before funding would be approved.  You might have found yourself in a similar position.  What did you do?

In our case we made the change, keeping two of the three message elements and finding a way to include the third message element.  Instead of giving up on the campaign, we found a way to inject that third message element into the efforts, satisfying everyone involved.

You will always find obstacles in your way whenever you propose to begin a PR or social media campaign.  Instead of giving up, find ways around them.  One of the advantages of a well-run social media campaign is that you have the power of individuals at your disposal. 

Being hijacked isn't the worst thing that will every happen to you campaign, but if it happens, know that your message might very well get lost as you try to regain control.  If you absolutely lose control of your original efforts, one of the best ways to regain control is to start a separate campaign.  You have the basic elements already as part of your original efforts and it doesn't take much to restart a separate campaign.

In this instance, you can ride the coattails of the original hijacked effort and even become a sympathetic character in the process.  By using the awareness raised by the newly-hijacked effort, you can bring the story back to the original message and refocus the story.

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