Privacy Policies and the Online Mob

Even tiny tweaks in policy can spark a social media firestorm This story originally appeared in Feb. 25 special Privacy Issue of Marketing. Tickets for Marketing’s Understanding Privacy in 2013 half-day conference are still available. When Instagram announced plans in December to amend its privacy policy, users reacted as if the free mobile photo-sharing service […]

Even tiny tweaks in policy can spark a social media firestorm

This story originally appeared in Feb. 25 special Privacy Issue of Marketing. Tickets for Marketing’s Understanding Privacy in 2013 half-day conference are still available.

When Instagram announced plans in December to amend its privacy policy, users reacted as if the free mobile photo-sharing service had personally kicked each of its 100 million users in the shin.

A social media mob mobilized, and its demands were clear: Stick with the old privacy policy for our candid photo diaries—or we’re leaving.

Three days later, in a message to users entitled “Updated Terms of Service Based on Your Feedback,” Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom confirmed the service would not go forward with this particular policy adjustment. The mob had won.

This new stripe of social media mob isn’t holding pitchforks. Its ranks possess something more powerful: their Twitter accounts. #BoycottInstagram became the hashtag du jour as users lashed out, 140 characters at a time, against Instagram and its owner, Facebook, for moving to allow Instagram photos to be used without
permission to sell ads on either of the two social media platforms.

The effectiveness of social media mobs is a reminder to any company or brand of the need to move fast when responding to users who rise up in collective revolt. And these days, few causes incite quicker virtual riots than claims privacy rights are being trampled upon.

For brands that live online and are considering a change in privacy policy, be prepared for pointed questions and ready to respond with quick crisis management if the privacy concerns go viral.

Twitter and Facebook wield the combined influence of a letter to the editor, a town hall meeting, a suggestion box and a powerful protest, combined. Social media can amplify a happy crowd. But when something isn’t right, look out. Highly contagious, the potential backlash from angry users, and the speed at which that backlash can creep into mainstream media and damage a brand’s reputation, must now be factored into any social media equation, especially when it comes to privacy.

“People are very touchy about privacy,” says Joshua March, CEO of social customer service company Conversocial. “And social media is the best place to attack a company.” March launched Conversocial in 2010 as a means for companies with high user volumes to distribute their customer service resources online.

Conversocial will monitor activity on a client’s social media platforms, and notify the company if a new issue, such as a complaint, starts trending. They will then assist in diffusing the problem by helping the client communicate with users quickly. March says that people now use social media to publicly complain to a company, perhaps on the brand’s Facebook page or using their Twitter handle, which can be embarrassing.

However, March adds that if a company responds to an issue right away, it can boost its reputation. “Engaging in dialogue is usually a much more powerful way of dealing with a situation,” he says. These days, users are not content to be kept out of the loop. In general, people expect transparency; with social media, they can demand it.

March says that when it comes to wildfires, Twitter is where they really burn. “Twitter is certainly the one where it can most spiral out of control,” he says. “With Facebook, the issues tend to happen on your page… On Twitter, things can spread much further.”

As March points out, staying silent in a crisis can imply guilt and do irreparable damage. Jeremy Robinson-Leon, principal and chief operating officer at New York’s Group Gordon communications firm, deals with this kind of challenge every day.

“We used to see crises primarily in traditional media,” he says. “Nowadays so much is related to social media. It either rises within social media or it has some aspect that falls into social media.”

Robinson-Leon says the need to act fast and plan ahead have always been key principles of crisis management. The new challenge presents itself in translating this to social. “Those principles become even more important and more critical,” he says of handling crises online. “When something can circulate in the blogosphere, on Facebook or on Twitter so quickly, there is a risk that a story can be defined for you as a brand in mere minutes. There’s nothing worse than a company finding itself in a situation where it just does not have a plan for how to get through it successfully.” He says it’s surprising that Instagram seems to have not anticipated the backlash it received over its December privacy policy announcement, given how prevalent the topic of privacy has become.

“In the case of Instagram, the company probably could have guessed that was going to get a negative reaction,” says Robinson-Leon. “They could probably have seen that yes, this is a very sensitive issue when it comes to privacy and the sharing of user data. They should have rolled it out differently. Some of this stuff is really not rocket science if you think about how your customers are going to react.”

Last spring, months prior to its proposed policy change, Instagram was purchased by Facebook, a deal scrutinized by anyone who’s ever questioned Facebook’s commitment to privacy in the past.

“People are forgiving to an extent,” says Robinson-Leon. “You can establish a negative reputation as a company if you make the same mistake multiple times. Facebook is plagued by the assumption that it doesn’t really care about user privacy. That’s because they’ve had several missteps and they seem to have repeated their mistakes. I think it’s much harder for Facebook to regain the trust of its users, because the assumption at this point is always going to be that Facebook is going to do something to jeopardize user privacy.”

A huge number of people still use Facebook regularly, but Robinson-Leon says people value their online privacy too much to ignore any concerns.

“Facebook would be in a better position if they had more of the trust of their users when it comes to privacy. It would pave the way for future changes and announcements to go more smoothly and meet less skepticism if they did have that trust.”

Facebook now has a fact check section on its blog, where users can go to verify whether something they’ve heard about the site is true. It also recently introduced the

“Ask Our CPO” feature, which lets users send privacy-related questions to the site’s chief privacy officer of policy, Erin Egan. Both moves are undoubtedly an attempt to calm down the angry mob that erupts when something doesn’t sit right. Even if the mob gets its facts wrong ,as it did in a Facebook scare last year in which users feared a glitch had made their private messages public (in fact, new settings had increased their visibility), it can still be very vocal and have an impact.

Robinson-Leon says clear communication beforehand is key. “When facts are distorted because people just don’t understand what’s going on, it is usually the case that the company did not do a good job communicating in the first place.”

There’s more! For more on the new privacy issues facing Canadian marketers, read the full article in the Feb. 25 issue of Marketing. Subscribe today.

For more insight on online privacy and consumer expectation, check out Understanding Privacy in 2013: The New Rules of Engagement on Feb. 28. Tickets are still available

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