Social Media: Stick to the Beat – or a Stick to Beat You With?

Social media is now the established channel for the “wisdom of crowds,” or pathway for popular democracy – often in defiance of established authority. The Cairo uprising and ongoing Arab spring was tweeted, rather than televised.

In Europe, the widespread use of Twitter to break the “super-injunction” from the UK courts banning established media outlets from reporting on the extra-marital affairs of Manchester United soccer player Ryan Giggs, certainly looks like a victory for the ordinary man’s right to know what highly-paid celebrities are secretly getting up to with reality TV starlets.

As reported in the Guardian, the decision by London-based celebrity law firm Schillings, representing Giggs, to sue Twitter to force disclosure of the names of thousands of leakers, now looks like a spectacular own goal for the unlucky player and his team.

The full-time score for Giggs’ Manchester United team in the European Cup match against Barcelona was 1-3. Meanwhile the half time score in the emerging Twitter Championship Cup for free speech is: Right to Know 1: Celebrities 0.

And though a municipal authority (South Tyneside Council) in the UK seemingly struck a blow for the status quo’s power to enforce by going to the California courts to force Twitter to reveal the names of tweeters who have allegedly been libelling legislators, nobody’s holding their breath that the world’s tweeters will suddenly stop gossiping online, or retreat into anodyne personal status reports.

But the bigger story is that the same drama of ‘public interest vs. business interest’ is playing out across a much wider stage. No large business can afford to look like Ryan Giggs and his elite but now floundering legal team.

So corporate interests are busily shaping and moulding social media to their needs. As it becomes a power channel, the social media revolution is growing up and getting sophisticated. It seems an Ice Age ago, but it was as recently as 2006 that corporate giants like Dell and Walmart first realised that this space had become mission-critical.

Active opinion formation by corporates using social media is now the rule. Knowing how to create, tell and deliver the story matters more than trying to stop it.

In finance, activist investors are using social media to bend the will of companies and CEOs they plan to influence or even take over.  Tech site Mashable reports companies are increasingly anxious to form opinions in this sector:

Last summer, a report issued by Q4 Web Systems found that companies are beginning to understand that they can no longer cede control of the digital conversation to activist investors. According to the data, 93% of public companies are using LinkedIn to conduct shareholder outreach; 65% are using Twitter; 37% are using Facebook; 29% are using YouTube; and 10% make use of a corporate blog for investor relations (IR).”

Governments are getting in on the act too: France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy – who recently addressed a conference of 1,000 internet executives – is trying to win consensus to regulate the internet.  But he will fail.

The lessons from the growing power of social media are that you can’t hold back the tide of public opinion – but you can still shape which way the story flows. Knowing what to say, how to say it – and above all who to be, counts more than any legal injunction in today’s cross-border social media climate.

By Richard House


Playing the audience for laughs

Is it OK to use jokes while delivering speeches and presentations?

For every successful example of the humorous touch, there are a thousand cases where a speaker’s ill-timed sally is met with crossed arms and stony silence.

Speakers on the Rotary Club circuit know these solid citizens have put to death more jokes than the rubber chickens on which they habitually dine. Eavesdrop any conversation between professional speechwriters and before long the subject turns to “killer jokes” – or rather, jokes that can kill their clients.

Yet suddenly, humor is back in. Thanks to Barack Obama. Undeterred by the pomp, ceremony, and the accepted wisdom that no good joke has ever crossed the Atlantic, the US president recently delivered the opening of a shaggy dog story as the intro to a 25 May speech in London about democratic values.

During his State Visit to the UK, President Obama addressed a joint session of both UK legislative chambers in the ancient Westminster Hall – which he lightly acknowledged as an honour granted to very few.

“I am told that the last three speakers here have been the pope, Her Majesty the Queen and Nelson Mandela, which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke,” quipped Obama. For a president whose soaring rhetoric has too often been lost in the clouds, it was refreshingly down-to-earth – and the crowd loved it.

Obama’s masterly demolition of Republican serial bore Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner in May probably did as much to secure his re-election prospects as the demise of Osama Bin Laden. Trump wasn’t just roasted, he was incinerated by humorous Obama in his liberating new role as comedian-in-chief.

Humour is the double-edged sword every competent speaker must wield from time to time. No jokes make for a dull boy – but one too many spells disaster.

Used right, humour will charm and engage. One low-risk route to a laugh is self-deprecating humour. Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, when asked for the recipe that helped defeat Hitler, said:  “Success is the ability to move from one failure to another with no visible loss of enthusiasm.”

Conversely, humour based on personal arrogance flirts with disaster. There’s no better example the hosting debacle at the 2011 Golden Globes Award, where British comedian Ricky Gervais was taken off by producers at half-time after enraging most of Hollywood. The “Office” star began smashing plates in his intro, and never left off. “It’s going to be a night of partying and heavy drinking – or as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast.”

Theodore Sorensen was the speechwriter and counselor who did much to shape President John F Kennedy’s narrative, image and legacy. Sorensen, who died last year, kept his boss supplied with a steady trickle of dry humour. In humour just as in his life, Kennedy was willing to take risks. Which is why this JFK stands the test of time as the benchmark for pubic speakers planning to deliver jokes. Some examples:

“I have just received the following telegram from my generous Daddy. It says, “Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

“Several nights ago, I dreamed that the good Lord touched me on the shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1960. What’s more, you’ll be elected.’ I told Stu Symington about my dream. ‘Funny thing,’ said Stu, ‘I had the same dream myself.’ We both told our dreams to Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson said, ‘That’s funny. For the life of me, I can’t remember tapping either of you two boys for the job.’

By Richard House


Risk to Reputation

FIFA and the IMF sure know how to walk on water — or still think they do.

Faced with similar reputational meltdowns, the shock would have at very least unseated entire boards at most private sector institutions, or sent many spiralling into protective bankruptcy.

Yet on the 100th anniversary of the launch of the Titanic, both institutions appear to be sailing serenely onward, oblivious to long-term weakening of their power. FIFA may not (like the IMF) have been conceived in Bretton Woods, but it plays a strikingly similar role to that of the developed world’s global financial gatekeeper.

Look below the waterline at these stately liners: the reputational double-whammy endured during May by these two bodies, is loosening the plates from which both are built. Dominique Strauss Kahn’s abrupt fall from the IMF and FIFA’s Asian football chief Mohamed Bin Hammam’s ouster will show “be you never so high, you are never above the markets.”

Just how long can Sepp Blatter continue to believe the only votes that matter are those of the 200 odd members of FIFA’s governing body – and not billions of soccer fans?  As for any private sector business, the answer lies with markets – in this case through the agency of FIFAs core financial sponsors, Coca Cola and Adidas.

FIFA may be unaffected by the mounting derision of ordinary fans – but a single EVP at Coca Cola can still plant an iceberg in its “business as usual” course by pulling the financial plug. After all, Coca Cola still remembers the decade long damage to its own reputation from persisting in its 1985 “New Coke” branding disaster.

Likewise the IMF, although nominally immune to market-driven sanctions, could soon be facing its toughest-ever challenge. The test-case is whether Europe’s finance ministers manage to put another of their own, in the shape of Christine Lagarde, in the IMF driving-seat.

The bulk of votes may rest with the EU and US, but the rest of the world now wants to play at being financial policeman. Right now, the IMF needs the BRICS more than vice-versa. Last year expatriate workers from developing nations remitted US$350 billion, in a stunning transfer of wealth that far exceeds the combined lending power of both the World Bank and the IMF.

The IMF’s plan to haughtily ignore the world’s workers and their governments in Mexico, Brazil or China by selecting a European to supervise the cleanup of Europe’s tattered finances, is every bit as risky as FIFA ignoring the world’s football fans.

As a consequence of the coming changeover at the corner suite at its HQ on Washington’s 19th Street, the Fund’s future reputation could be shaped by how Spain reacts to handling by the IMF.

Under DSK, the IMF successfully imposed upon a luckless trio of Europe’s “new poor” – Portugal, Greece and Ireland – a set of economic sanctions that are astonishingly similar to the medicine dished out in the 1980s to Spain’s former colonies in the New World.

Exactly 30 years ago Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Colombia all broke and buckled under during the debt crisis, accepting the IMF’s tough love. But will Madrid, as the fourth member of the PIGS group, actually bow the knee and take its medication from Christine Lagarde?

Spain is a patrician country which by European terms is not just “too big to fail” but also “too proud to be humiliated” in the same way as Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Already, legions of young Spanish are turning city squares into a passable copy of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Perhaps they’ll recycle some of the old demo posters from 1980s-era Brazil. Then, protesters charged that IMF really stood for “Fome, Miséria, e Inflação” (Hunger, Misery and Inflation).

And now that the European Champion Clubs Cup again sits in Barcelona, nobody should underestimate the power of football to shape economic policy. For both the IMF or FIFA, mounting cracks to the smooth reputational façade, provide an opportunity for new players to wrest control of these old and creaking structures.

Netnet: Reputation matters.

By Richard House