Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Politics and Social Media: Is Your Company Prepared for 2012?

Following the 2008 presidential campaign, many were quick to dub it the "first social media election." There is no question that social media played a part in the 2008 contest--the Pew Research Center found it was the first time more than half of the voting-age population used the Internet to connect to the political process and many observers felt Obama succeeded by attracting a younger voter through his use of digital and social media.

Despite the headlines following the last presidential election, social media was still too nascent to be a significant part of most voters' election research and activities. Back in 2008, just 18% posted their thoughts, comments or questions about the campaign on a website, blog, social networking site or other online forum. Why such a small percentage? Because in November 2008, Facebook had barely 100 million users and Twitter was seeing 100 million tweets per quarter. Today, Facebook is eight times larger and Twitter hosts that same quantity of tweets every ten hours.

In 2012, it isn't just the political parties and campaign teams that must be prepared for social media challenges. Companies need to fasten their seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy ride!

Next year's election is shaping up to be a combative and dangerous one in social media. Battle lines are already drawn brightly over taxes, deficit reduction, unions, war, government bailouts, marriage equality, health care, education, social issues and the role and size of government. In addition, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling reversed many of the limitations that had been in place on corporate political spending. Add to this a potent combination of newfound social media influence and dramatically open social media communications, and 2012 is likely to see a number of high-profile campaign-related social media crises within the corporate world.

Companies may find themselves battling social media issues on three fronts:
  • Internal - Employees: Politics used to have no place in the workplace. They still don't, but consider how many places your employees can come into conflict in 2012. Work and politics were relatively easy to keep separate four years ago, but this year they'll be as obvious as your workers' latest posts on communities, Facebook, and Twitter. What happens when two coworkers lock horns over a political issue outside of work and it spills over into the workplace? Are you prepared when an employee complains about unfair treatment because he or she made a critical comment to a boss's Facebook post in support of a candidate?
  • External - Employees: Between checkins, LinkedIn and social media profiles, it isn't hard to know where virtually anyone works. That means the separation between employees' political opinions and your company's name is equal to the number of pixels between their tweet and their bio. What happens when a customer takes umbrage to political statements made by an employee? Must your workers' political beliefs match your brand's or your customers'? Of course not, but take note of the media storm that occurred when Whole Foods' CEO expressed a "personal opinion" that contradicted many shoppers' attitudes toward health care reform.
  • External - Corporate: Does your organization make campaign contributions? Does it support every single position of every single candidate it supports? Target, an employer with a track record of supporting same-sex employment policies, faced a vocal boycott when it donated to a group running ads to aid a candidate opposed to same-gender marriage. Target said it was donating to the group for its pro-business policies, not its social positions, but that mattered little to people who signed online petitions and cut up their Target charge cards. There are countless examples of companies forced to grapple with unwanted and unexpected transparency in social media, and this means companies must be prepared to deal with questions, criticism, anger and calls for consumer or shareholder intervention in reaction to every dollar spent during the upcoming election. Against this backdrop, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's call to boycott any and all campaign contributions seems as much a shrewd and cautious approach to protect his brand as it is a political statement.
You cannot dampen your employees' free speech in social channels. Nor is it likely many companies will follow Schultz's lead and simply cease all political activities--the business, regulatory and tax stakes are too high within most industries for business merely to sit on the sidelines. There is little your company can do to avoid the coming twin tsunamis of social media and politics, so preparation is the best course of action.

Do not get caught unprepared when the inevitable questions arise on your Facebook wall, on Twitter or in other social venues, and don't make the mistake of thinking you have the luxury of time to collaborate on a response and secure approvals from multiple executives and committees. The difference between a single irate customer and a wave of online boycotts, Facebook groups, email-writing campaigns and YouTube gripes may be measured in minutes rather than hours or days.

Activists are gearing up to put corporate actions under the microscope in the coming twelve months. You won't be able to appease all of the people all of the time, but you can be prepared to have an honest, candid discussion about your employees' rights to express their political beliefs and your company's reasons for supporting the political groups and candidates that it does. And social media professionals would be smart to make sure those making political decisions for their organizations consider the transparency social media will bring to those decisions.

Your enterprise will be writing checks this campaign season, and you better have your social media messaging prepared before the ink is dry on those checks!

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