ABC Entertainment, which produced the revamped version of “Roseanne,” is the latest company to learn the challenge of doing business in an age when citizen activism is amplified by social media.
The network canceled the hit show after its star, Roseanne Barr, sent a racist tweet – since deleted – that prompted outrage and a potential ad boycott. Other networks have chosen to axe reruns of the original “Roseanne.”
While ABC’s swift decision stunned observers, it suggests companies are learning from recent PR stumbles by the likes of United Airlines and Uber. Incidents that not so long ago would have been relatively isolated are inflaming public sentiment at a breathtaking pace, catching companies wrong-footed and significantly raising the stakes of such missteps.
As my research into online social networks shows, these incidents illustrate the challenges for companies in dealing with the fallout of bad publicity as social media amplifies both the reach and range of responses available to concerned individuals.
A massive shift
Social activism has fundamentally shifted in the age of social media.
In United’s case, videos showing security forcibly removing a passenger from a flight in April 2017 went viral before the plane had even taken off. It sparked a furor that caused United’s stock to drop and its CEO to apologize several times and refund the fares of every passenger on the flight.
Uber faced a similar PR crisis after it appeared to align itself with President Donald Trump’s refugee ban. At least 200,000 people removed Uber apps from their phones.
The main difference between what happened to ABC, United or Uber today and what would have happened 20 years ago is the speed, scale and spread of digital activism.
Back then, people would not have the means to either raise awareness or mobilize for a cause at this speed and scale. Outrage over the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, for example, eventually led to an award of millions of dollars in damages, but it took months for the scale of disaster to become clear and years of protracted negotiations.
In contrast, today’s companies that make PR mistakes face substantial damage within hours of the incidents, resulting in boycotts and spooked investors.
While some commentators say this reveals a crisis in public relations management, the truth is social media’s fast pace is putting incredible demands on PR professionals.
How activism goes viral
There are two main mechanisms that are influential in shaping the virality of digital activism.
The first one involves how social media platforms like Twitter provide a leading opinion-making role to a few key – and connected – individuals, amplifying their voices and allowing videos and memes to spread. For example, the viral #DeleteUber campaign began with a single tweet from a Chicago journalist named Dan O’Sullivan.
A study of online social interactions showed that a small set of “seed” users (with lots of followers) account for a disproportionately large share of viral phenomenon on social media. In other words, all it takes is a few retweets by celebrities or news personalities with sizable followings to share almost instantly a “call to arms” with thousands if not millions of users, many of whom will also retweet the video or hashtag.
The second mechanism involves how social media amplifies the visibility of viral phenomenon by turning more individuals into opinion-makers as they easily engage with others like them – which is known as homophily, or a preference for like-minded others.
The resulting activism spirals into a large-scale online movement that is impossible for companies to ignore. In a paper I co-authored with business professors Yong Tan of the University of Washington and Cath Oh of Georgia State University, we documented how online conversations accomplish this.
As I found in another study with Tan and Oh, once a hashtag reaches a threshold of visibility, subsequent online conversations between individuals only magnify the influence and spread of the hashtag. This helps turn users from passive sharers into active broadcasters.
While the age of TV makes it possible that one person’s act of protest can be broadcast very quickly around the world, it is the opinion-making role of social media, when combined with its reach and speed, that makes digital activism compelling.
Message for businesses
So what does this mean for companies?
Because consumers often consider themselves to be in a “social contract” with businesses, which are supposed to care about their well-being, the biggest problems emerge when companies do something that appears to violate it. That’s what happened when United’s Oscar Munoz described dragging a passenger off a plane as “reaccommodating” him.
Some companies, however, have learned how to manage the power of social media by being proactive in dealing with cultural and political issues that could trigger a backlash from consumers if poorly handled.
This, however, might be of little use after an embarrassing incident like United’s. That situation illustrates the importance of being flexible with processes, as well as with communications. In his 2017 letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos hit this on the nose when he noted how “it’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, ‘Well, we followed the process.’”
This is exactly what happened to United when the CEO’s initial defense of what his crew did on April 9 only exacerbated the problem. And I believe it’s why ABC didn’t hesitate in dropping “Roseanne” before the backlash spread.
The old adage is that the customer is always right. Today’s fast-paced world means this idea is more important that ever, and companies need to communicate clearly and to proactively keep consumer trust when it’s violated.
When it comes to negative fallout from social media, it is important to act quickly – even if there are some missteps at first.
Editor’s note: This is an updated and expanded version of an article originally published on April 13, 2017.