Social Media, Risks and Urban Legends: What are you afraid of?


Jeff DeCagna of Principled Innovation, LLC spoke at the ASAE Social Media Workshop on November 6. His talk, Connecting Social Tools to Organizational Strategy and Capability focused on how important strategy is in your social technologies efforts.  His second question in Jeff’s Top Ten Social Strategy Questions for Association Leaders got my attention with the word “risk.” How much business risk are we willing to accept? Risk assessment is an important part of any strategic discussion not just social technologies.

Manufactured Risk

Jeff defined three types of risk – manufactured, manageable and momentum. Manufactured risk caught my attention because the perceived severity of a manufactured risk often causes an organization to not pursue a specific strategy because it’s too risky. A manufactured risk in one that everyone talks about, worries about and keeps them from acting. The risk is usually taken to the extreme, worst case scenario threatening the organization’s survival. To me people repeat the concerns so often the risk takes on the persona of an urban legend . Urban legends are neither false nor true but usually have a grain of truth as does a manufactured risk. But people don’t analyze the exposure to decide if the potential outcome is truly that awful or devastating. People just use the manufactured risk as a reason not to do something.

They’ll say bad things about us . . .

The most common reason (manufactured risk) an organization resists social media is that “someone may something bad about us, our members, clients, sponsor, etc.” The grain of truth is that yes people will say something bad about your organization or members – it is inevitable – not everyone will like what you‘re doing. The exaggeration is that the comments will cause irreparable damage possibly leading to its demise. Damage to your reputation is a risk that you can and should be managed, but the final outcome is rarely the end of your organization. When an organization does fail it is due to inherent structural or cultural faults that existed before the bad press.

Wendy Harman , Social Media Manager of the American Red Cross (ARC) , spoke at the workshop and helped debunk this manufactured risk. Wendy joined the Red Cross in late 2006 when Hurricane Katrina was still a trending topic. Her task was to stop people from saying bad things about ARC on the internet. However when Wendy began listening in the 400+ mentions of ARC each day the majority were very positive. According to Wendy in an interview with John Haydon, “People are more generous and more willing to engage than we gave them credit for being. Now, we’ve been able to figure out how to start building an online movement of people empowered by us and themselves to make a difference.”

What to do . . .

To prove this to yourselves and your bosses do both a Google and Twitter search for your organization’s name, acronym and industry topics to see what people are saying about you. I think you’ll find most comments are positive or a worse case no one is talking about you. It’s better to know what they are saying so you can respond appropriately. A quick review of public relations and marketing failures such as United Breaks Guitars,’s snafu with listing its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books in the “adult” category and the “Dell Sucks” campaign were the result of the companies not responding to criticism by its customers. Greater damage is done by not responding or replying in a defensive or patronizing way. A quick and honest response goes a long way plus your members will come to your aid. Don’t let the manufactured risk of “bad public relations” keep your organization from engaging online with its members and other stakeholders. There are bigger risks to manage than this one.

  1. #1 by Peggy Hoffman on November 10, 2009 - 9:34 pm

    Great take on Jeff’s session and I too was struck by the work risk and his great defn of manufactured risk. Maybe there are 3-5 questions we can ask ourselves to determine if a risk is manufactured or real – your thoughts?

  2. #2 by Leslie White on November 11, 2009 - 11:20 am

    Great suggestion and I’ll tackle it in my next posting but the short answer is to analyze the risk to determine if it is real or imagined. If real, what are the chances of it occurring and what are the possible outcomes if it happens. Stay tuned for the next installment.

  3. #3 by Steve Drake on November 11, 2009 - 12:05 pm

    Thanks for sharing these comments … I missed being at the conference.

    Your comment about urban legends caught my eye for two reasons:

    1) Someone followed me today (on Twitter) is is running a State Farm Sucks efforts. Made me wonder whether State Farm is aware and is responding?

    2) Over the past month, one of our clients (National Christmas Tree Association) is attempting to clarying an internet urban legend that President Obama has decided to call the White House Christmas Tree a “holiday tree.” NCTA has been providing the official Blue Room White House Christmas Tree since 1966.

    It appears that the myth is being spread by those who dislike the President and see it as a way to reinforce their agenda.

    While some NCTA staff feel it is not worth the effort to respond to Tweets about the issue, I tried yesterday.

    Here’s the dialogue:

    @POLITICAL_PRO: It’s a holiday tree this year, not a Christmas tree.

    @SteveDrake NOT true. WH is calling it a Christmas Tree.

    @FreedomRing I heard that too but they are still calling it the WH Holiday Tree in the media!

    @stevedrake That’s media’s problem. It’s WH Christmas Tree. See stories:

    Clearly, social media tools have great value as a research and monitoring tool for associations and others.

    To me, the question is not whether to employ SM platforms but how best to use them when your “brand” is under attack.

  4. #5 by Celebrity Rumor Blog on December 4, 2009 - 2:23 pm

    In response to the previous commenter, we were careful to mention that your organization confirmed that it is, in fact, a Christmas tree:

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