Regardless of your politics, it’s clear that what happened to the activist group ACORN this month is an extraordinary case study in Web 2.0 and the rapid loss of reputation. It’s a new media nightmare.
ACORN is the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. An advocate for the poor, labor and liberal causes, ACORN organizes voter registration drives, demonstrations and efforts to influence government or pressure businesses. While controversial and oft-accused of improprieties, ACORN has won victories against big companies and been an ally of some top Democratic leaders.
Along came two politically motivated social media types, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. Like other 20-somethings, O’Keefe has been producing videos for the Web – in his case, needling liberals. Giles, a 20-year-old college sophomore, got in touch with O’Keefe with an idea to go after ACORN with a made-up event.
The two concocted a scenario to test the community organizers’ integrity. O’Keefe would play the role of a pimp and Giles a prostitute. The pair gathered a few props, went on the road with a hidden camera, and set out to entrap ACORN.
Visiting ACORN offices in DC, New York, Baltimore, San Diego and San Bernadino, O’Keefe and Giles told ACORN counselors they needed advice on getting a house for the prostitution biz, hiding income from the IRS, avoiding police detection, and smuggling underage girls into the country to use as prostitutes.
The poseurs got their shocker. Some of the ACORN officials went along, seemingly ignoring the illegality and morally outrageous nature of acts they were discussing. The videos show ACORN people casually giving advice for how best to carry out and conceal the purported illegal enterprise. “Pimp” and “prostitute” seemed to be treated like any other client.
BigGovernment.com, a new conservative website, linked up with O’Keefe and Giles and used their sensationalized attack videos to create momentum for its September launch on the Internet. It’s been a success: The ACORN videos went viral, with links from a host of blogs and tweets; they were huge on YouTube; the slam on ACORN struck a chord with conservative talk hosts; and the controversy crossed over into mainstream media. Within days, Congress members were denouncing ACORN and voting to defund it. Everyone’s investigating.
ACORN has been tripping over itself with denials and counter-attacks. It denounced “indefensible” actions of its people and fired some. Accused the video makers of distortions and filed a lawsuit. Invoked the respected names of its silk-stocking Advisory Council. Posted its own video. Launched an “investigation” of itself. ACORN has tried all the usual reputation-defense tactics. But the damage is done.
This isn’t a small-time hit. BigGovernment is the brainchild of Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Internet entrepreneur who has worked with Drudge Report, a top right-leaning site, and a similar aggregator, Breitbart.com. The sophisticated distribution and marketing of the “news” is worthy of film propagandist Michael Moore or liberal political activists MoveOn.org. These people play hardball.
Well, enough politics. What does the ACORN story have to do with corporations and IR? Investor relations professionals need to envision, for a moment, the potential for a new media nightmare for their corporate reputations.
Build your own scenario. Imagine a couple of 20-somethings bent on doing damage to your company, products or industry. You can’t predict what store, office or plant they may visit. Starting with sophisticated new media skills, they add well-funded distribution – and show no civility or restraint in their attack.
Will the “gotcha” go viral? How much will it damage the company’s reputation?
The anti-business analogy to ACORN’s current organizational torment argues powerfully that companies need to prepare for potential crises created through interactive media channels. Skirmishes already have taken place – but may intensify.
Companies ought to minimize risk by being sure our people are all trained in ethical conduct. If we consistently do what’s right, it’s much less embarrassing. Culture can prevent problems – or not.
IR and other functions must develop robust social media skills, so we’re prepared before a crisis strikes. And we should invest in early warning systems – assuring timely internal communication, as well as monitoring the social and regular Web.
Our crisis communication plans – including IR components – must be up to the challenges of the 21st Century.
Don’t be ACORNed.
© Copyright 2009 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.