Why Online Activism has the Power to Change the Way We Do Business

Online activism is a very potent tool for change. It gives activists who would otherwise go unnoticed an immediate and global audience to hear their side of a story. We’ve seen how activists can garner a groundswell of support. This support can overrule the ‘terms and conditions’ of business. It can even put world leaders in their place.

It is an instantaneous way for like-minded people to band together in one place. They can come together regardless of where they are. Companies who believe the way they do business will remain unaffected by the power of online activists should take heed from the lesson that one of South Africa’s biggest insurance brands have learned over the past year.

Local insurer Momentum Life had to rethink its life insurance policies. They had to do this specifically in relation to deaths as a result of violent crime. This was the aftermath of initially rejecting a claim. They rejected it due to a lack of disclosure of a pre-existing health condition at the time of signing up for the policy. Underestimating the power of social media is a hard lesson to learn. The internet is the biggest activist. It can hit hard when things go wrong. It is a lesson to not ignore your audience. Even if you think you’re right, acknowledge their concerns.

Companies are increasingly exposed to online activism thanks in part to the rise of socially-conscious consumerism. It has the power to affect real change either for or against businesses.

Businesses who haven’t invested in placing on record their reputation for being ethical and transparent will be particularly exposed in times of crisis.

Online activists vs. online saboteurs

It is important to distinguish between the online activist versus the online saboteur. A big responsibility rests on the shoulders of activists to ensure that they can stand by their point of view. This is especially true when it is tested. However well-intentioned, it can lead to unwarranted damage to brands.

When conversations ignite society’s emotions about a particular issue – whether it is for or against a cause – there are many “keyboard warriors” who jump on the bandwagon without really interrogating the merits of the issue at hand.

Online activism can be very unpredictable and can start a potentially open-ended conversation to which activists can return to again and again.

This raises one important issue for businesses and an important opportunity. This is to be much more in tune with the conversations that their audiences are having. It is to be sensitive to their causes. It is inevitable that mistakes will be made, but the key is to get ahead of the problem before being taken to task.

It’s critical that companies are proactive when problems do arise to explain, apologize, repair the damage and rebuild trust on the premise that a problem will not reoccur. Business must be able to answer the question ‘what is the worst thing that could happen to our company on social media today, and are we ready to deal with it?’

The online world has enabled society to become a conscience for businesses. It is a conscience that is ever vigilant and fearless in its pursuit of what it believes is just.

By Lynn Erasmus: Lynn Erasmus is Managing Director of Cape Town-based strategic communications, marketing and public relations consultancy HWB Communications Pty Ltd. a member agency of the Public Relations Global Network. 

The original article can be found on the PRGN website here.

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