I had chat with a friend of mine who works in the social media space. We discussed the relative moral merits of a large FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) brand. In a normal PR agency there are certain moral questions. For instance, does the leadership of the firm want to work with dubious governments? Should they work for tabacco companies, or promote food products that cause obesity? Does the companies business practices involve undue exploitation of the environment, their workforce and other stakeholders; or skate close to the letter of the law and infringe its spirit?
The reason for this soul-searching would be to ensure that they could staff the account. PROs have to deal with a lot already, they usually don’t want to sully their CVs with pariah brands. On the other hand the agency also needs to balance this with the moral reality that more boxes that can be ticked on the above lists of questions, the greater the potential revenue in terms of messaging and reputation management.
The environment is area that is particularly hard to measure how evil a company is. Use of bio-plastics could be driving up the price of food, bio-fuels may have an adverse impact on CO2 emissions. A green car may still have a higher lifetime carbon footprint than a 20-year old Land Rover due to manufacturing processes and shipping the vehicle half-way around the world. Recycling programmes may encourage unsafe processing of toxic waste in third party countries. Green pressure groups can make any company sound like they are hell-bent on the destruction of the earth if it fits in with their quarterly campaigning plans.
With social media things get more complex, the higher the evil quotient of a prospective client the harder it is to do successful social media campaigns, Edelman’s pioneering work with Walmart is a case in point. You attract determined well-resourced badvocates. If you look at Phorm; an internet advertising company that attracted concerns for consumer privacy, you can see how a well-resourced group formed from individuals and planned their actions via internet forums.
Having a badly behaved client ties you down, actually restricts their revenue potential and takes your reputation and brand down with them. Social media means that organisations have to look up and down their own stakeholder relationships and do an ‘evil audit’ to prepare for any ‘blow-back’ that may come along from badvocates. This definition of organisation doesn’t only mean prospective clients but their social media agencies too. Being known as a social media agency that will accept toxic brands is not a good place to be; you will be judged by the friends you keep.