In the course I teach in Loyola’s Emerging Media program, Strategic Communication, much of the reading and discussion centers on the emerging relationship between organizations and stakeholders (read: brands and consumers), as strategic communication increasingly moves to online, social, and mobile platforms. This shift in how organizations advertise and communicate with consumers has led to a dramatic shift in the “power” held by consumers, and their ability to make their voices heard and elicit change within an organization.
Gone are the days where customers had to be angry enough to call or write a letter in order to “speak out” against a company. Today social media allow consumers to speak directly with companies – as well as other consumers – when they feel they have been wronged. In fact, it may seem that a day does not go by when a story like this of an angry consumer engaging with a brand on social media does not pop up somewhere, with a predictable tale: consumer complains to brand, brand apologizes or offers compensation.
In fact, best practices for public relations professionals often include responding to ALL social media complaints. Moreover, the web is littered with advertising and marketing articles which urge organizations not to ignore negative online feedback from stakeholders, describing a variety of ills that can follow. The range of “success” stories of those complaining to an organization on social media and receiving a thorough and attentive response can further skew the perception that one’s social media voice will be heard loudly and clearly when aimed at an offending organization. In fact, complaining to the Internet in general can sometimes prove fruitful, as one young woman found out after she was deceived by Uber.
Sadly, the idea that the social media world allows all consumers to receive fair, timely, and responsive treatment is not quite accurate. Not even close. And perhaps we should not expect it to be. While “best practices” may be for PR professionals to respond to every negative tweet aimed at their brand (see Digiorno’s response to their faux pas), the truth is there are too many bad things being said, and too many brands on social media unprepared (or unwilling) to make this effort.
Two recent incidents help illustrate this truth. Some time ago when a certain Ravens running back was the top news story across a range of media outlets, bringing to light other active NFL players with ongoing domestic violence cases, I came across this advertisement for EA Sports’ MADDEN franchise. Again. I had seen it before, but somehow, the dominant message of the campaign seemed different.
This time, it was more difficult to ignore how violence was being portrayed in the ad – as something normal men did. Add to this your (typical) sexualization of women while using them primarily as decoration in the ad, while the main female character was treated as a possession to be lost, and I grew more uncomfortable with the ad – especially with its connection to the NFL.
I wanted to learn more about this campaign and see how deeply it ran with topics of violence or sexualizing women. After browsing the game site, I noticed they had a link where I could “challenge” my friends. Clicking on that button brought up a Twitter window with a prewritten tweet, which included the first line of the ad, “Madden Season is the reason my hand touched your face”. So, they were encouraging me to tell me friends I would hit them in the face. This was just a bit too much for me, so I thought I would try to get their attention and alert them to the potential offensiveness of this part of their campaign. I made sure to use their appropriate handle and the hashtag created for the campaign.
Nothing. No response. Nada. And maybe that’s ok. I could have done much more to make a fuss online and try to get their attention, and maybe that would have garnered a response. However, this was an unfortunate reminder to me that just because you try to engage with a brand online, they are not obligated to respond. It is also possible that I was too gentle, too cordial in my tweet, and anyone monitoring the use of their handle did not feel that I asked for an explicit response.
Enter iStock. While looking for ad examples on AdWeek, I came across a multi-part banner ad that I found, well, problematic. As someone who studies, researches, and teaches advertising design, it was difficult for me to miss some alternative meanings from an ad with a half-naked, bent-over female and the words “Perfection has its price. Ours is low”. It shouldn’t be THAT easy for your ad to be used for a brothel. Further, as a father with two young kids, I am increasingly sensitive to sexualized images that pervade the media space.
A bit upset, I wanted answers. Specifically, I wanted to know whether iStock would give me the predictable line of “the ad copy means our images are perfect, and very affordable”, or whether they would admit to the purposeful polysemy (multiple meanings) of the ad, and reconsider using it in the future.
Nothing. I tweeted a similar image again, including @AdAge and @AdWeek to see if anyone wanted to chime in on the subject, but again came up blank. I also posted this image to iStock’s Facebook page with a similar cry for an explanation. Nothing.
However, these experiences led me to an interesting realization, which I include here as the takeaway point of this post. While much research has been done and is being done to better understand how organizations can effectively manage social media interactions, no best practices exist for how stakeholders can effectively engage with brands via social media. While we may hold the perception that if one complains loudly enough using online platforms then he or she will receive a response, this does not provide a good roadmap for consumers who are looking to engage meaningfully with a brand. Indeed, one of my undergraduate students was recently a victim of a rate hike on Uber, and reached out to the brand online to no avail.
Communication researchers and practitioners should be mindful of this gap in the literature – that scholarship has perhaps focused on aiding the organization at the expense of the stakeholder. If Web 2.0 technologies and emerging media platforms are supposed to give consumers a more powerful voice, more work is needed to identify the channels, language, methods, and habits that lead to the most positive outcomes for stakeholders (not just organizations). While brands scramble to roll out new channels for consumers to speak with them including online chat platforms, dedicated Twitter “help” handles, and Facebook “help” pages, consumers find themselves in a similar scramble. In the ever-diversifying media space, consumers may feel that the growth of media channels leads to the power of their voice shrinking, as organizations seek greater control. Savvy consumers may recognize that by having a dedicated Twitter handle to deal with complaints, this shields the main brand handle from fielding “negative” comments, which may have been the goal of the tweet to begin with. By focusing efforts on the problems and needs of consumers (having their voice appropriately heard and responded to), strategic communication researchers can help improve outcomes not only for organizations, but also their stakeholders.
By Gregory Hoplamazian, Ph.D.
Master of Arts in Emerging Media