Paul Holmes 17 Jul 2011 // 2:22PM GMT
Since social media began its rise to prominence, it has been conventional wisdom that those media would lead to increased scrutiny of corporate behavior, as well as providing activist consumers with a channel through which they could connect and communicate with one another, mobilizing more rapidly around issues of corporate responsibility. Over the past couple of years, we have seen numerous examples of companies that came under fire from social media activists—on issues ranging from customer service (Dell) to environmental exploitation (Nestle)—and responded with varying degrees of competence and success. But the past couple of months have seen a series of organized campaigns by activist group change.org, which demonstrate that some critics of corporate practice have figured out how to successfully leverage the social realm to promote their agenda. In three days last month, more than 500 people blanketed Costco’s Facebook wall with demand for the company to join the No Dirty Gold campaign, an agreement that protects against child labor, environmental destruction, and other common gold mining abuses by reforming corporate supply chains. Other consumers targeted supermarkets, leaving “Consumer Alert” cards on the shelf in front of Hershey products, as well as on Hershey’s S’mores promotional displays, reading: “Hershey’s chocolate is tainted with child labor.” And more than 1,300 people have signed a petition asking Apple to remove its online store from the Christian Values Network, which is used as a fundraising tool by anti-gay, anti-women organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. (Microsoft had earlier pulled its online store from CVN after a Change.org petition.) There’s plenty of evidence that companies have not yet figured out how to respond to such leverage. So after dozens of activists posted messages on the Facebook page of Italian fashion house Versace, protesting its use of sandblasting on jeans (a practice deemed harmful to employees), the company deactivated its wall, prompting change.org to issue a statement: ““Versace customers call on the company to simply follow the lead of other major clothing brands and stop seriously endangering its workers. Instead of responding to the content of that demand, the company decides to try and silence any criticism.” So far, companies are either capitulating (which may, in certain circumstances, be the most appropriate response) or responding by shutting down their online presence or attempting to silence their critics (which is always inappropriate). The protestors have figured out how to use these new technologies way better than their targets. But other companies are going to need to figure out how to engage with their consumers online if they don’t want to be at the mercy of any protest movement that can mobilize a few hundred online petitioners.