Understanding the Activism, Brand Reputation & Human Emotion Triangle

Activism. It has always existed. The power to drive and enact change in society. In recent years we have witnessed a revival and upsurge in activism. Citizen activism in particular. The digital age has empowered citizens more than ever before. Take the year of 2011 as a classic example. It has been labelled the ‘year of revolt’ with the Arab Spring uprising and the rapid growth of the Occupy movement. Social media played a pivotal role in both events. The increasingly dynamic triangle between Activism, brand reputation and human emotion is both a powerful and continual risk management challenge for Corporate PR.

The truth is that today brands and the corporate world struggle with the best ways to respond to social media attacks and campaigns by activist and pressure groups. Digital activism is arguably new territory, even if activism itself is not new. This problem is amplified by the fact that many activist and pressure groups have been early adopters of social media. They have long understood its power to mobilise supporters globally.

In reality what we need to remember is that digital is just a channel. A channel for activism. That is all it is. Activism itself is driven by human emotion. It is the emotions that an individual feels inside them on a particular issue that ultimately becomes the driver for them taking action in regard to that particular issue (activism). Psychologically speaking, visual imagery such as emotive photos and videos, have been proven to amplify and increase emotional intensity in a person. That in turn becomes a powerful driver for activism and crisis management.

As crisis and reputation management professionals we should be continually mindful of this. High emotional intensity on an activism issue can cloud logical and intelligent thinking. Indeed, it is recognised by us that, in crisis management, often the real challenge is managing the emotions generated by the crisis rather than the actual crisis itself.

Neutralising the impact of activism against a brand therefore must, I believe, start with addressing and neutralising the emotions that are driving that activism. Too often when brands and organisations are attacked on social media through digital activism the focus is a reactive one. It is centred on the channel (social media) rather than the emotions driving the activism. To illustrate what I mean by this we frequently hear buzz terms like “Social Media Crisis Management”. This implies a channel centric approach to the management of the crisis. It suggests rather subtly that social media crisis management is somehow different, to say, normal crisis management. I believe such a view is too narrow, unrealistic and therefore by default too risky to adopt in the management of a crisis against a brand or organisation.

The root to the management of activism rests first and foremost in understanding human behaviour, not just understanding social media. Sure, it is important to understand how social media is used for activism but that importance is always secondary to the importance of firstly understanding human behaviour and emotion. First identify the emotions driving the activism. Then from that starting stone and foundation work to neutralise those emotions through visual imagery, psycholinguistics and NLP designed to connect emotionally with the public and engage in a persuasive, truthful and transparent way the root emotions that are driving the activism or crisis.