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In the last decade, companies have slowly come to realise that a communications strategy does not work if it does not include a significant weighting towards social media. They have also very reluctantly accepted that it is not free, but that to make serious inroads money needs to be spent, and if an agency is being used to do it, a lot of training is required before they can reply meaningfully and promptly to enquiries.
Many of the young marketing staff that I have worked with over the years, now in senior positions, have complained to me about how much they dislike having to give 80 or 90 per cent of their budget to the dominant companies in the digital space such as Google and Facebook. This uncomfortable feeling has been heightened by the working methods of these powerful organisations, where many now worry that profit ranks higher than the integrity of their working methods.
Hence, it was no surprise to see that a group of Civil Rights campaigners in the U.S. were able to gather a broad level of support for a #StopHateForProfit campaign. So far over 160 companies have announced a withdrawal from advertising with Facebook for the month of July, some much longer. Unilever have said they will withdraw from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter until the end of the year. According to one newspaper report, Unilever spent a little over US$500,000 advertising with Facebook in the first three weeks in June alone. Nearly all of Facebook’s income comes from such advertising, although the biggest proportion comes from masses of small companies.
Closer to the leather industry, Patagonia have been amongst the most vocal. On June 21 their Head of Marketing, Cory Bayers, put a statement on their website that they were pulling all adverts on Facebook and Instagram until at least the end of July. “For too long, Facebook has failed to take sufficient steps to stop the spread of hateful lies and dangerous propaganda on its platform. From secure elections to a global pandemic to racial justice, the stakes are too high to sit back and let the company continue to be complicit in spreading disinformation and fomenting fear and hatred.”
If anything, their view has hardened since then, as increasingly the Facebook position has been to defend its business model and make only incremental adjustments to reduce concern. Patagonia suggests that Facebook will have to shift to take far more responsibility for items put on its site, acting more like a publisher than the neutral platform position it has maintained to date.
The concept behind these platforms is one which has grown up with the Internet. In order to use it to stay in touch with friends and family, customers provide Facebook with all their data, which Facebook sells to more or less anyone who will pay for it. It is a worrying approach for an Internet that Sir Tim Berners-Lee had anticipated would be kept free for all, but where a small number of big global players dominate and have the financial muscle to buy up any potential competition.
Patagonia is one of the most respected companies in the world for its determined approach to sustainability and corporate social responsibility. They have pushed consumers to buy less and been proactive about repair. They are watched and admired by many companies who take a lead from their approach. As the new terminology of environment, social and governance (ESG) becomes ever more established, whatever your politics, these new questions mean that media allocation is more than a simple communication matter, but a higher level policy decision.
Facebook has to recognise that this is an increasingly polarised world and that many people have been learning how to use the tools of social media to exploit that polarisation and benefit from it, often making statements that are deliberately dishonest or provocative. This now means that hiding behind neutrality while taking your money looks increasingly untenable as a business model, and the social media businesses will have to become more proactive, even at the cost of diminished profitability.
Tanners, and others in the leather industry, will have judgements to make here. While the enlarged role of digital, which the pandemic has now made inevitable, means that a “cyber resilience” analysis will be a regular requirement for all businesses, the new expectations of ESG will force every one of us to decide our position on matters such as racial intolerance, hate speech, harmful content and other issues related to use of customer data. There are dialogues here that we will have to be ready to have with our employees, our customers and our other stakeholders.
July 1, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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