One Year Later: BP Still Hasn’t Learned Ethics

Communications from BP in recent weeks claim the oil company has reversed the damage from the Deep Horizon oil spill, both environmentally and economically. This communications effort flies in the face of factual reality of dead wildlife, decimated fishing careers, and the ongoing economic hardship felt throughout the Gulf region. The unfactual, dishonest communications campaign once again demonstrates BP’s lack of ethical integrity. Worse, it is occurring as the globe moves to celebrate Earth Day this Friday, adding insult to injury.

Last year throughout the oil spill, BP consistently lied to the public about its actions and the damages sustained by the Gulf. The transgressions were in direct conflict with basic communications ethics, and represented one of the worst cover-ups in modern history. It demonstrated BP’s true lack of corporate citizenship, and a willingness to through entire ecologies under the bus all in the name of shareholder value.

Complicit in its lack of action, the Obama Administration only brought pressure to bear on BP after significant public anger was expressed. It took the likes of @BPGlobalPR on Twitter lampooning BP’s slimy communications and citizen journalists showing the damages on closed public (and policed) beaches, to inspire the incredible amounts of negative media pressure.

The ensuing call to the carpet caused bumbling yachtsman and BP America CEO Tony Hayward to step down from his job. It cost BP $20 billion is damages before a single liability trial began. It caused a leadership shake-up in the EPA’s Mines Minerals Service. All for naught.

One year later, the Gulf still suffers. BP is still lying through its public teeth, more worried about its public image than doing the right thing. And the Obama Administration claims to be holding BP accountable, whistling in the dark about what may really happen as the 2012 election looms.

It has been and remains evident that the only thing that can help the Gulf is us. Citizen action (see this current Ushahidi map) alone can help because the responsible parties simply won’t. If you want to help the Gulf, this Earth Day please consider donating to the Surfrider Foundation or the Ocean Conservancy.

What do you think about BP and the Obama Administration one year after Deep Horizon?

The Ethics of Flash Mobs

Anonymous hackers
Image by Anorak News

In December of last year, Anonymous hackers teamed to hack U.S. sites and post angry messages of dissent against U.S. companies that withdrew support of Wikileaks. Last October, when ace photography blogger Scott Bourne posted on Twitter’s digital copyrights, angry photographers flash mobbed his site, causing Bourne to close comments. In 2007 Greenpeace targeted Apple for poor environmental standards with its Webby award winning GreenMyApple campaign, which in part featured calls to action to comment negatively on Apple blogs.

While usually used to organize rallies or market consumer products, online flash mobs are a favorite tactic to silence or overpower opposing viewpoints. Sometimes they involve a negative commenting campaign on a Facebook fan page or a blog. Other instances feature more risque action, such as sending supporters in to report a fan page as spam or taking down someone’s web site.

The above examples are the public ones. Many are not. From animal rights and pro-life activists to political voices and free speech advocates, some deploy attacks to silence their opponents, anonymously organizing in the background and acting publicly. What are the ethics of the flash mob as a means of dissent?

Anonymity, the Mark of Unethical Behavior

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The core of flash mob ethics revolves around anonymity. If organizations and people disclose their identity as part of their mass action, they are acting in accordance within the norms of public communication. In addition to publicly disclosing who they are, mindful civil discourse should be used.

“If you’re going to ask folks to comment, en masse, each person who posts a comment is obligated to reveal his or her affiliation,” said Bill Sledzik, associate professor in the School of Journalism, Kent State University. “It’s the only way the process can be transparent. Of course, rules of civility should also be followed, but folks do tend to get out of control when the issue is an emotional one. The ethical rules really don’t change from one platform to the next. So long as the intent of those posting is to make their case, and they do so with transparency and civility, I don’t see a violation.”

In the end, from a larger objective standpoint, strategists have to decide whether the negativity of such attacks really helps the larger effort. Winning may tarnish an online brand. In essence, by attacking with a public flash mob, a group may win the battle, but lose the war. For example, PETA often wins many of its core public issues, but lacks respect outside of its immediate circle of supporters in large part because of its questionable tactics.

“I know a lot of people will disagree, but is there any victory in winning through negativity,” asked Danny Brown, communications blogger and co-founder of Bonsai Interactive. “Why not get the same followers to promote all the good your organization does, and really push that to others as opposed to trying to change minds that are already made up, not to mention the negative response you could bring on yourself?”

Flash Mobs as Bullies

PETA

Sometimes the mob can be unruly and down right mean spirited, resorting to nasty personal attacks and even threats. Individual voices act with passion and virtual force to achieve their objectives, creating charged situations where feelings are hurt. The loudness and sheer magnitude of the attacks silence the opposition.

“Using whatever communication means available, whether social networking sites, blog comments, Twitter and others to effectively gag another’s ability to express themselves is dishonoring freedom of speech and in my view, not defensible,” said Andrea Weckerle, founder of the nonprofit Civilination. “That doesn’t mean that all views are socially or morally defensible, but as an approach, in a free society we need to defend others’ right to expression and not use strong-arm tactics to force them into silence… When the methods of expression reflect personal attacks, insults, hominem attacks, and threats against individuals and groups, the intent is pretty clear.”

The civility issue seems to come up the most in politics with a focus on extreme elements in U.S. political parties. The outcry that occurred after Arizona shootings in January brought this matter to a new level of public discourse. At the heart of it was Sarah Palin’s efforts to rally on and offline Tea Party activism using gun sights targeted at Democratic Congressional districts, including the critically wounded Representative Giffords’ seat. How appropriate are extreme online and public attacks?

“I prefer to live in a society in which laws, however corruptly enforced, not mobs, decide who is guilty and how to punish them,” said Howard Rheinghold, author of Smart Mobs. “There is the public sphere in which demonstrations and boycotts are legitimate actions, and online flash mobs tipped presidential elections in Korea and Spain. But drowning out voices of dissent has no place in a democracy.”

It is a hard discussion, one that balances free speech versus decency. As we have seen with Anonymous’s most recent target of the often controversial Westboro Baptist Church, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Recourse for the Flash Mobbed?

Recourse is the first instinct for the flash mobbed organization or person left with a blog littered by negative comments and in-bound links, or worse, a fan page or web site that’s down. But it’s not as easy as a gut reaction to fight back. Sometimes fighting back simply prolongs the issue, even validating it. An organization or individual needs to take the time to respond intelligently rather than simply react.

The first and most obvious area of recourse is negative commenting that’s anonymous and/or attacks personas. It is increasingly acceptable to delete such attacks on one’s own fan page or blog. It is advisable to have a publicly stated social media policy that clearly states the organization’s position on anonymous comments and attacks before an incident.

“First, I would delete all comments that use profanity or resort to personal attacks,” said Kent State’s Bill Sledzik. “If the comments are transparent and civil, we have to live with it. When they’re not, we have to call them out for their dirty deeds – and fight back as best we can.”

“If comments are being left on one’s own blog, for example, the blog owner can decide which to allow and which not to publish,” added Civilination’s Andrea Weckerle. “This is not censorship, as far too many people believe – censorship applies to suppression of speech by a government body”.

The next level of recourse is a public statement. It’s important to do this when the situation involves negative, incorrect information about an organization or a person. But it may be best to weigh the gravity of the flash mob attack. Statements and counter actions should be reserved for serious situations that damage a person or an organization’s long-term reputation. In such cases, engaging one’s own community to help makes sense.

“Reach out to your community and ask if they can write about their experiences with you,” said Danny Brown. “Continue to monitor sites and postings about you, and if need be, ask for complete lies and non-facts to be removed. Try and counter bad exposure with facts and good exposure, and use SEO to work in your favor to (hopefully) counter the bad over a sustained period of time. It’ll be tough but it can eventually be countered.”

In the worst situations, people and organizations should seek legal recourse. Certainly violent threats and illegal actions like shutting down web sites require the attention of law enforcement officials.

A Better Social Web Exists

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A better social web exists. It exists within each of us.

Today, this social web isn’t popular, instead it has fascinating small pools and eddies of action and meaningful dialogue. But this can be The Social Web, a place better than a popularity driven attention sphere focused on the best looking unicorn (Bieber or Kardashian, take your pick).

Our virtual worlds can become a place of vigorous discourse. Rather than dismissing social media‘s incredibly empowering capability in the hands of the Fifth Estate, the better social web seeks to increase online literacy for Everyone using these tools. The Middle East is just an example of what driven people can do with intelligent networking tools. So much more can be accomplished if we apply ourselves.

Rather than arguing over ideas and dismissing what we don’t like as uncivil (and thus engage in civility debates), politeness and manners will take precedence. Discourse can include disagreement without discoloring it with a personal sense of “respectful” civility. Posturing and maintaining top rankings via attention metrics will mean less in the Real Social Web.

The Real Social Web is a meritocracy where great acts drive the ebb and flow of the tides. This social web of the future works for society instead of trying to fleece it. Accomplishing acts that matter will take precedence: Social change occurs, companies working hand in hand with nonprofits to achieve great acts, and companies serving their customers with better products in services, embracing them as part of an extended social enterprise.

Popcorn dreams? Maybe. But changemakers seize on ideas and make them happen. Dreams can be achieved.

What do we have to do to get there? We can’t turn a blind eye to it. As communicators we are as responsible for the current PR 2.0 driven popularity mess as Silicon Valley is. We have to look at ourselves, and see how we have created this and why? It is incumbent on us to mindfully evolve within to create this new social web of the future.

We must speak up, one by one. And we need to stop rewarding the old PR systems and the people who have lead us into the popularity trap. It’s time to start asking why these people are popular, and what they did “Before Social Media.” What qualifies them to lead the communications industry besides personal attention?

Together we can collectively build a better online community. This means educating ourselves and our customers on what real business outcomes are. It means focusing on the basics, instead of the hyperbole of the latest shiny object (Android Honeycomb app, anyone?). It means much stronger practices of metric based communications across the industry. Instead of focusing on the Klouts of the world we need to develop more myImpacts.

It means talking to our children and reinvesting our values back into great deeds and hard work instead of quick fixes and popularity. Digital literacy and understanding how information is served must become a critical function of our education system. Sustainable happiness will be the outcome as opposed to short term vicarious pleasure (yum, Pop Chips).

The Real Social Web of the future is a place where anyone can use these tools to achieve great things. Imagine writing literature of the digital future, making a child laugh, creating a virtual place where scientists from around the world work to conquer AIDs, building the best company in a sector, or achieving a more peaceful, democratic country.

Yeah, it’s a dream. But inside this heart a better social web exists. Some people live this dream already. It’s worth fighting for.

Please Retweet This

In life on Twitter, it’s virtually impossible to move far into one’s career without being asked to retweet (RT) something. Almost every single one of us have asked for and have been asked to RT for a fellow marketer, friend, or simply a follower. But as time passes, more and more influence formulas are tied to RTs as a metric. This impacts the value of receiving RTs, both positively and negatively.

There seems to be people who will ask for a RT on just about anything they do. Given the lack of capital that is involved in kicking out a RT these days, does it mean anything? If many fans blindly RT as sign of support for their favorite voices, how seriously should we consider RTs? And what are the ethics involved in asking for retweets given the influence metrics?

Well, there’s no real ethics involved at all, unless you are getting paid to RT. In that case disclosure needs to happen. Still, one school of thought believes it’s OK to ask as much as you’d like, and another believes RTs should be primarily earned unless there’s a special nonprofit or personal initiative involved.

If asking for RTs is necessary to get an initiative going, is it because the content or news isn’t good enough to take off on its own? If strength of community exists before anything starts, simply publishing that information and providing it to stakeholders in communities of interest should be enough. This is the ideal. Consider this: If the initiative isn’t good enough then why send it out to the network for help? Is it right to cheapen the pipes with a concept that a core community isn’t interested in?

Others may argue that’s nice in an ideal world, but what if someone’s network isn’t strong enough to get the content out there? Strength of community doesn’t exist, thus requiring pitching. It seems like a fair analogy, a lower stakes game of pitching to influencers for play. Fair enough, but if one has to rely on influencers every single time they have a great blog post, a worthy business announcement, a good cause…

It might be worthwhile to invest in the hard day to day grind of building relationships within your community of interest. This is the core purpose of social media anyway; to develop meaningful relationships that benefit all parties. Lest you turn into the neighbor who comes over to borrow an egg or a rake every single day.

Ultimately, earned RTs — where people are so compelled by the subject matter — should be the goal. This is the act that matters, a sign of worthy content. The rest is saving face, compensation for weak community, a bit cheap, and a notch for an influence score or client report. Unfortunately, the general trend drags down the whole value of a RT in the stream.

Conversely, Twitter members retweeting others need to decide what’s right or wrong for them. If being known for reliable good information matters, so does a discerning eye.

What do you think about retweeting?

The Questionable Ethics of Klout Perks

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On the social web, it is important to look at the details, including content publishing rights, communication “best practices,” influence theory, or a “Perks” package. For the past two weeks, many online personalities updated their Facebook and Twitter statuses declaring they had received their Klout Perks package. It has brought up the question of ethics. Will these influencers always reference the Perks program when touting their Klout?

In addition to becoming the preeminent influencer package of choice for businesses, it’s clear that Klout has a second agenda: Disseminate products into the marketplace via volunteer online influencers for their marketing clients. The sponsorship program is called Klout Perks. Certainly, at face value this seems like a reasonable way to monetize a database, and also cement influencer loyalty. Of course, given the questions that have arisen about the integrity of Klout’s algorithm, advertisers may not get the ideal result.

While Klout had a code of ethics around its Perks package and how participating will impact and individuals’ score, the larger question of ethics for the actual influencers still remains. How can an influencer who counsels others about online communications maintain their integrity and take the Klout Perks package?

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At a bare minimum, according to the Federal Trade Commission, disclose needs to happen. Providing disclosure that one is a Klout Perks recipient every single time Klout came up in conversation would be a bit of an odious task. And even at that, one would then still have to question any statements made about Klout or other influence measurement packages.

From an ethical standpoint, perhaps the journalism profession can lend a hand. According the Society of Professional Journalists, “writers should ‘refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment…,’ so as not to ‘compromise journalistic integrity.’

Marketing, PR and social media folks don’t have the same kind of rigorous code of ethics, unfortunately. In this case, it would clearly provide guidance and enable a less inflated view of Klout on the public interwebs. Instead, clients, readers and friends are left to discern the truth in unclear waters.

Special thanks to Susan Murphy, Mike Ashworth and Calvin Lee for weighing in on Facebook.

Related Content: Klout versus Reality

Suffering Through @BP_America’s Facebook Ad Campaign

Facebook Semantic Ad Failure Featuring @bp_america and @johnbell

Much has been made about BP’s questionable advertising campaign, from President Obama’s call out of the $50 million expenditure to ethical questions and search engine placements. Experiencing this inappropriate overspend on Facebook has been quite troublesome.

The above ad was served to me over Memorial Day weekend on Facebook. It clearly demonstrated that while Facebook is using my posts and links as a means to serve me ads, it doesn’t work. The ad features BP, a company I have been blogging negatively about for several weeks, and one of my local friendly competitors John Bell, head of Ogilvy 360 DC. John’s a good guy, but that isn’t going to sway me to support BP. Thus, Facebook privacy violations or not, the ad tech wasn’t smart enough to really work.

PastedGraphic-1.pngMy reaction, I clicked the ad to go away. When prompted for my reasons, I clicked on the offensive choice. Fast forward 10 days and I have been served the BP ad or a variant of it almost a dozen times. No matter how many times I click “offensive” or “misleading” the ad keeps coming back.

Facebook’s continuing disregard for its members is clear. And it makes me feel zero loyalty to the organization. AOL once thought it was undefeatable, but technologies and the Internet change. We know there’s no respect for privacy here, but if Facebook’s ad tech can’t even respect a user’s request, when a better, free solution comes movements will happen.

As to BP: No one believes this company any more. The spin has become too much. From what we were led to believe — the world’s most progressive energy company — to the factual reality, the world’s most irresponsible oil manufacturer; everyone sees a company shooting out hot air.

You can’t buy trust, especially once trust has been violated. The only way out of this for BP, again, is to fix the well, clean up the environment, take care of the damaged Gulf economy, and simply report progress using PR and social media sites. Aggressive claims of being moral and right will fall on deaf ears. Yet another communications gaffe for BP.

Geoff Livingston is a regular contributor to the Live Earth blog.