Tuesday, July 31, 2012

NBC, Twitter, Guy Adams and the Streisand Effect

If you have been in social media for any length of time, you know about the Streisand Effect, named after an infamous situation involving singer Barbara Streisand. She attempted to suppress online photos of her Malibu home, creating an internet backlash that assured the photos received substantially greater attention. People evoke the term "Streisand Effect" whenever an attempt to remove information from the internet backfires, resulting in that information being publicized much more widely. Today, NBC and Gary Zenkel are learning firsthand about the Streisand Effect.

Allow me to demonstrate for you how the Streisand Effect works: Gary.zenkel@nbcuni.com.

That email address is for the President of NBC's Olympics, Gary Zenkel. We know this thanks to Guy Adams, The Independent's Los Angeles bureau chief, who had used Twitter to express great frustration over NBC's time delays and editing choices. NBC felt Adams crossed the line when he tweeted Zenkel's address, so NBC requested that Twitter suspend the journalist's account for revealing the "personal information of one of our executives." Many are appalled that Twitter acquiesced, considering the format of the email address followed that of every other NBC Universal employee, plus that email address could already be found on the internet.

If NBC had hoped its action would protect Zenkel's email address, the company failed. Because of NBC's request to Twitter, that information has since been distributed in thousands of tweets, blog posts and news articles. As I write this, that email address is being tweeted once every three minutes, and a search of Google results in 50,900 hits. (Actually, 50,901 after I post this blog post.)

It is another in a long string of lessons about the dangers of trying to strong-arm people and websites into taking down information. Other examples of the Streisand Effect include:

  • Matthew Inman, the creator of The Oatmeal comics, was upset about his content being repurposed without credit by the website FunnyJunk, so he fought back with acerbic comics featuring criticisms of FunnyJunk. The targeted site responded with a legal demand Inman not only cease and desist but also pay FunnyJunk $20,000 of compensatory damages. Inman's subsequent promotion of this letter brought even more criticism of FunnyJunk's use of others' IP. More importantly, when The Oatmeal decided to raise $20,000 not to pay the damages but to donate to two charities, the site ended up collecting $220,000 instead. FunnyJunk not only failed to suppress the criticism, its actions helped the criticism go viral, instead.
  • Labatt threatened to sue the Montreal Gazette unless the paper remove a photo of an infamous murderer drinking a Labatt beer from its web site. When word got out of Labatt's clumsy legal attempt, Twitterers launched an embarrassing new hashtag, #NewLabattCampaign, to shame the brand. Under intense scrutiny, the brand backed down. “Our goal was simply to protect our brand," said Labatt's VP of Corporate Affairs, but instead of protecting the brand, the heavy-handed response brought more unwanted attention to the very photograph the company had hoped to censure.
  •  In 1990, McDonald's brought libel proceedings against a small London environmental group that was distributing pamphlets claiming the restaurant chain, among other accusations, destroyed the rainforest and exploited children in its advertising. The McLibel Case, as it is now known, received international attention, resulting in vastly more people being exposed to the disparaging charges made by the environmentalists. McDonald's spent several million pounds on this case, and while they won a small settlement, the primary outcome of the company's efforts was to ensure that accusations so easy to overlook in London were instead disseminated globally. 

There are no hard and fast rules, but before resorting to takedown requests and legal threats, consider the following:
  • Is the offending information factually incorrect, or is it a statement of opinion?
  • Do you truly have the legal standing to have the information removed, or are you grasping at straws and risking the appearance of censoring critics or customers?
  • How visible is this information? How many people have seen it? 
  • Is it spreading, or is the information already being ignored and forgotten?
  • Are brand advocates already stepping in to protect the brand and contradict the information?
  • Does the information create actual reputation damage, or is it merely something that company executives find distasteful?
  • Is the damage long-term?
  • Will the damage affect the financial performance of the organization? 
  • Are there safe ways of dealing with the problem, such as creating positive content to take focus away from the offending information?
  • Can you engage the source of the information or others in a public dialog rather than resorting to threats or takedown requests?
  • Is the source of the information one that is likely to respond quietly, or are they the type to turn to social media to continue embarrassing the brand?
  • Is there a single source, or is the offending material being published by many?
  • Finally--and most importantly--is it really worth the risk that your efforts will do more harm than good?

It is hard to imagine why NBC thought the risks were worthwhile to bring action in this case. The Olympics will be over in two weeks. The information did not seem that damaging, nor does an executive's corporate email address seem highly personal and private. Criticism of NBC's coverage choices are quite widespread, so this action was not going to make a dent in that negative sentiment, even if the lid had not blown off the story. In addition, the person NBC targeted is a vocal media professional and highly engaged critic of NBC who has substantial access to both print and online media; in other words, he was not going to go down quietly.

Had NBC stayed silent, Gary Zenkel's email address would have been contained in a single tweet and not spread across the internet. Thanks to the company's actions, that information is now widely available (and I cannot imagine how much email is pouring into Zenkel's email address right this moment.) Guy Adams is continuing to broadcast his criticism of NBC (and now of Twitter), newly emboldened by the loss of his Twitter account. It's as if he is borrowing a page from Streisand's songbook:

Get ready for me, love,
'Cause I'm a "comer,"
I simply gotta march,
My heart's a drummer.
Nobody, no, nobody
Is gonna rain on my parade!


Becca said...

Very interesting article that you’ve posted. Found the views to be quite informative and intriguing. Thanks for sharing.

Greg Linnemanstons said...

Great stuff, Augie. Every corp communications pro should be force-fed the Streisand effect case study before doing some ill-conceived knee-jerk reaction to behavior they don't like. IT'S clearly become part of the foundation of PR 2.0, and we all have to live with it.

Augie Ray said...

Becca and Greg,

Thanks for the comments.

I agree--every corp comm and repution management pro should know this stuff. I'm amazed how many don't!