This time last week, who can honestly say that they had any more than a passing knowledge of oil distributor Trafigura or reputation lawyer firm Carter-Ruck? Whilst there may be a few out there, I’m reasonably confident that those numbers have swollen significantly over the last seven days.
How about Jan Moir? As a former Outstanding Woman Journalist of the Year, respected food critic with The Telegraph and more recently a columnist with The Daily Mail, you’re more likely to have read her work or heard the name discussed somewhere. Although, that said, she was still far from a household name.
A mere seven days ago, finding a common link between the aforementioned Trafigura, Carter-Ruck and Moir might prove a little tricky; without straying too far into the tenuous or studying genealogy for hours of course. But today they have the unique distinction of having their indiscretions pilloried throughout the world.
Their downfalls weren’t played out like those in days gone by though. There was no gradual Woodward and Bernstein sleuthing, no editorial coverup. The alleged suppression of parliamentary questions and the controversial claims made about the circumstances surrounding Boyzone singer Stephen Gately’s untimely death were reported in real-time. They were distributed on Twitter.
Trafigura Discover the Streisand Effect
Whilst the media were concerned about the ramifications of publishing a question asked in Parliament by MP Paul Farrelly, Twitter took over. The Guardian couldn’t cover the remarks, which centred around Trafigura’s alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. The embargo had been placed a month earlier, and staunchly defended by Carter-Ruck, a City law firm who were to suppress news whilst protecting their client’s reputation. Unfortunately for both businesses, this embargo didn’t cover social media.
By the morning of Tuesday October 13th, speculation that the news involved Trafigura spread onto Twitter and soon it was top of the trending topics; despite most users being oblivious to the actual content. The Guardian helped spread the #Trafigura tag and soon bloggers, including Guido Fawkes, were posting the question and discussing the case openly.
Carter-Ruck’s attempts to quell any negative publicity backfired spectacularly. Whilst significant, the story would almost certainly have never had the same impact were it not for this unconstitutional intervention. It triggered what is commonly known as a ‘Streisand Effect’; where the attempted suppression of a story actually helps it spread. By publicising that they didn’t want publicity, they fuelled a worldwide Twitter storm. This ultimately meant they had to lift the injunction and the whole world knew that the two companies had been in cahoots to silence the media and, more worryingly, parliament. Not clever.
Daily Mail Lost in a Twitter Storm
From the world of corporate big business down to a tabloid newspaper columnist, nobody is safe from the Twitterverse’s wrath. When writing her piece ‘Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death’ (since renamed), Moir can have safely assumed that it may receive a mixed reaction. Released on the eve of the singer’s funeral, the accusation-laden and highly opinionated piece (putting it nicely) was a widespread controversy waiting to happen. Unfortunately, Moir didn’t have to wait long.
Almost as soon as it appeared in both the physical and online form of the Daily Mail, people were quick to chastise the article and its author. Within a couple of hours, Jan Moir was trending on Twitter; her small column which probably gets a few thousand readers, was suddenly the number one online destination. Celebrities including Stephen Fry and Derren Brown lead the attacks on Moir, with trans-Atlantic backing from the likes of über blogger Perez Hilton; helping build added momentum to what was already an out-of-control gargantuan snowball effect. In fact even SEO heavyweights weighed in. Malcolm Coles was one of the most vocal and started a highly successful campaign to have advertisers remove their adverts on the page. There was no escaping the outrage for the Mail or Moir.
The content of the article itself is not up for debate here. What was said is so well publicised it barely needs any additional airtime. It’s the backlash that will raise eyebrows. Suddenly the general public has moved seamlessly from quiet observer to judge, jury and executioner; their platform is no longer a mild-mannered letter to the editor, it’s digital, it’s real-time, it’s social media.
Moir could have had no idea that her one ill-advised aberration would be covered in such lurid detail across the worldwide media. She probably only had a vague understanding of what Twitter and Facebook were, and was ignorant to their potential to dethrone anybody. Following the events of the last week people will have to wise up.
Managing Reputations on Social Media
Social media isn’t something you can silence, it can’t be quelled by fancy lawyers and isn’t bound by the same conventions as the press. As a high profile writer, company or any public figure, the consequences of any actions you undertake can’t be swept under the carpet any more. Social media is growing, so therefore are the amount of eyes and ears watching every move. The moment a news story breaks, it has the potential to go global in moments. Never before has there been this kind of power, both for positive and negative.
Does this have a detrimental effect on freedoms? It’s hard to see how. Claims that Twitter suppresses the freedom of speech are ludicrous. Twitter is a platform to say what you want; you just have to be prepared for the consequences if it flies in the face of public convention.
The message to online businesses is therefore one of restraint. If you’re looking to build a reputation through social media, you have to be prepared for the positives as well as the negatives. The Press Complaints Commission received 22,000 public complaints following the Jan Moir article; more than the sum total of all the complaints that they’d received in the preceding five years. Public feeling is easily stoked, and social media is the perfect platform from which to do it.
Whether it’s the Streisand Effect or general outrage at publicly accessible information, you have to be careful what you do and say in the public domain today. Reputations can be built on social media, but they can also be shattered in an instant. It has to be respected and you have to understand how to manage your reputation; always remember, bad news travels fast online.