How did social media become so nasty?
The short story is that a variety of people with nefarious purposes have found out these channels are free and available, and the tactics of negativity and fake news work fairly well, which is unfortunate for society. The longer story is that mainstream media is sort of a production of the 20th century. Before that it was rumour, gossip, flyers and town criers. Now, we're entering into the infancy of whatever comes after or along with mainstream media. It's the Wild West. There are just no checks and balances, with some minor exceptions with walled gardens such as Facebook. Every day, I'm reporting accounts on Instagram and Twitter and so on that are clearly inappropriate for a variety of reasons. The filters are not there and the companies that are purportedly replacing mainstream media companies are not taking on the civic responsibility that they should.
Are companies becoming wary or rethinking social media as a result?
They always were wary, because enterprises and associations that my agency deals with are accustomed to the rules of a different game, where things are vetted and there's journalistic objectivity. When it comes to investor relations, there are regulatory and reporting processes that should be trusted and respected. In this space, all bets are off at the moment. I feel that it's in its infancy and, 50 years from now, this will be looked upon as the great propaganda shift. But at the moment, companies that want to take the high road, be transparent, tell the truth and be on the right side of the law are faced with people who have no compunction about lying, twisting the facts, hiding behind fake identities and so on.
So what are the biggest social-media pitfalls for companies?
It's the old adage: Don't feed the trolls. It seems simplistic but I've generally been guided by the notion that maybe 10 per cent or 15 per cent [of social media users] are on the weird end of the scale on the left and another 10 per cent or 15 per cent are on the weird end on the right. Then there's the middle, the centrist, point of view, which not only appeals to me personally but seems to be the path of civil discourse and appropriate for corporate communications. There are a variety of things you have to do as you ignore [trolls]. Sometimes you just tune them out; sometimes you have to mitigate risk by being proactive with your communications. If somebody says your company is up to no good and it's a blatant lie, you have to at least evaluate the situation. It could be that this is just some weirdo in his mom's basement, in which case, you don't worry about it. If it's someone who actually has a following, or group of ne'er-do-wells, then you have to acknowledge that this could gain some momentum and you might have to take some defensive communication measures.
Has it changed how you counsel clients?
Now, it's a matter of volume and process. The fact that so many people have jumped onto social media, and the volume of this kind of toxicity has increased substantially, you need better processes, better software, more eyes and ears on the ground making sure that you understand the entirety of the context of an attack on your company or your reputation. Eight or nine years ago, you could say, "That's a weird thing, but no one is on there anyway." Now, you can't afford to do that. It's really about coping with the scale of communications. Companies were used to dealing with small groups of reporters, politicians or landowners. Suddenly, they are able to come out of nowhere and companies have to be nimble and execute cleanly to avoid getting caught in whatever they're trying to tar you with.
What's the future of all this?
It's like most new industries, and certainly I would count Twitter and Facebook and even Google in the new-industry category. We think of railroads or mining or forestry companies that were left to their own devices, and at some point, society said, "We like what you're doing over here, but we don't like what you're doing over there." Eventually, either the industries learn to regulate themselves or there's enough social outcry to impose regulation. We've already seen a number of tests on that front with respect to privacy on Google and Facebook and so on. There's been a number of European and Canadian spankings delivered for tracking things they shouldn't and to their credit the companies agreed to put in processes to [remedy] that. At this point you can give them the benefit of the doubt because they still see themselves as tech companies. But just as with public broadcasters and newspapers at some point you have social responsibility as a corporate citizen and the public and governments will start to hold the companies to account.
This interview has been edited and condensed.