Monday, February 25, 2013

Ten Years Damaging Reputation: The Streisand Effect and How to Avoid It

Happy Birthday, Streisand Effect!

Ten years ago this month, one of the most well-known Internet memes was born: The Streisand Effect. This meme is not a frothy Harlem Shake-like viral sensation that is here today and gone tomorrow; it is a set of avoidable circumstances with serious consequences for anyone responsible for managing reputation, public relations or social media. Already in this young year, The Streisand Effect has tripped up a number of brands and people who should, by now, know better. Avoiding The Streisand Effect is not difficult, so why after a decade is it still such a problem?

The photo that launched a
meme--Streisand's mansion
The Streisand Effect was named after an incident that began in February 2003. A photographer, Kenneth Adelman, posted thousands of photos of the California coastline in an effort to document coastal erosion. One of those pictures showed an aerial view of Barbara Streisand’s Californian estate. Streisand's law firm wrote a cease-and-desist letter and later filed a lawsuit, demanding the photos be taken down.

This heavy-handed legal action not only failed to get the photos removed but called tremendous attention to the photos of Streisand's massive home. The image of her estate was downloaded just six times prior to the suit but was accessed almost half a million times in the month afterward. And thus a meme was born--"The Streisand Effect" occurs when someone's ineffective attempts to censor information results in that information gaining more publicity, attention and engagement.

It is positively astounding to me that public relations professionals still do not grasp the essential truth of the digital and social era: Information cannot be contained. If damaging information hits the web, there are many things you can do to manage reputation, including responding, issuing contradictory information, addressing individuals, enlisting advocates and contacting influencers. In fact, there is really only one option that is not available in 2013 (as was the case in 2003), and that is to attempt to get the offending information scrubbed from the Web.

Ten years after the "The Streisand Effect" was born, brands and PR professionals still have not learned. Already in the first seven weeks of 2013, we have seen some big brands stumble into Streisand Effect blunders:
As the Chubby Checker example may (or may not) demonstrate, the Streisand Effect can also be used by smaller brands to create awareness and challenge established brands. A better, more obvious example of this comes from SodaStream's 2013 Super Bowl non-ad. The company sells beverage-making machines that replace consumers' need for Coca-Cola and Pepsi products. The first draft of SodaStream's Super Bowl ad (see below) was reportedly rejected by CBS; of course, it was uploaded to YouTube where it has received almost five million views, courtesy of the controversy.

This was not the first time the Streisand Effect boosted SodaStream's awareness. Last year, TV execs in the UK yanked a SodaStream ad for being too disparaging to soft drink companies. Soon, the number of views of the ad on YouTube surged from 100,000 to more than 2 million.

The Streisand Effect is so pervasive nowadays, it is hard to understand why so many companies stumble into the situation. Is it ego, thinking a brand's power can be used to scrub information from the Internet? Outdated thinking? Or just panicked decision making that severs decisions from common sense?

This is not the first time I've written about the Streisand Effect, and something tells me it will not be the last. Of course, preventing the Streisand Effect is really quite easy. If a piece of incorrect or damaging information begins to circulate, the recipe to avoid danger is:

  1. Stop! Do not act until dispassionate logic has the upper hand over emotional reaction.
  2. Do not rely solely on lawyers for guidance. For both action and communication decisions, involve PR, reputation management and social media professionals for counsel.
  3. Appreciate that the offending information is on the Internet and will never disappear. Your goal is not to get it removed but to react in a way that mitigates damage.
  4. Do not overreact to the situation. Take stock of how much the information is really spreading, if the company's customers and prospects care, and whether it will impact the company's reputation and business. Sometimes, no action is better than anything else.
  5. Be transparent and embrace openness. Show people you have nothing to hide, care what they think and are open to feedback.
  6. Do not hesitate to correct--but not censor--erroneous information. Combat misinformation in the same channels it is spreading. For example, fight video with video--you cannot counter a viral YouTube video with a press release.
  7. Engage consumers, advocates and influencers in a conversation. This is not a shouting match but a dialog.
  8. Admit fault where there is fault. You cannot hide from the court of public opinion, and pleading guilty will often do more to end the spread of damaging information and enhance reputation than trying to evade.
  9. Do not, under any circumstances, post and tweet the same canned language time after time. This is like throwing gasoline on a fire, and it will only make matters worse. Avoid corporate speak and talk like a person.
  10. Lastly, do not wait for a reputation event before you consider how to address one. Be prepared. Have a plan. Drill on it, to make sure your tools, processes and people are ready. 

Remember, these situation are not about information but about People (people who need people). If you want the Internet to not Rain On Your Parade, avoid Emotion, and soon Happy Days Will Be Here Again--you and your customers will be back to The Way You Were.

(Sorry about that. I was really struggling with how to close this blog post on a Streisand note.)


Davina K. Brewer said...

Someday there'll be a place for us.. smart PR people. If that works as a reference. ;-) I shared a lot of the Beyonce thing, saw a few of the others unfold. And am kinda waiting for some Carnival footage to surface?? Don't overreact is the big thing, never mind not forgetting how technology works. It's 2013, no way to un-ring those bells.. and trying to tends to make it worse.

Now to use the SE in reverse, that's a neat trick. Think the 'banned ad' is a badge of honor for that, driving people to actually seek out your ads, see what they 'missed.' FWIW.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Davina. I appreciate you getting into the Streisand swing of things. Great points--I think I need to trademark "the Reverse Streisand," don't you think? ")

Unknown said...

Quite a catalog of lack of common sense, or of sense that should certainly be common by now.

Anonymous said...

Hi Augie,

Great post. I thought you might be interested to see an example of what might be the opposite of the Streisand effect: the way Jack Daniel's recently responded to a copyright issue. This link takes you to one of many articles that were written about the brand as a result of our legal team's action (our attorneys recognize that everyone is a marketer.) .

Augie Ray said...

Ken, as if we needed yet another example of how common sense is disappointingly uncommon, huh?

Marjorie, I knew about that situation, and shame on me for not thinking to add it to the blog post. Maybe there's another blog post to come on brands that avoided the Streisand Effect. Now I just have to find a second brand with the smarts of yours!

Thanks for the dialog!