Communicating in the Time of Facebook: An OpEd By Roopen Roy

Reprinted from the Financial Chronicle of India by permission of the author. Roopen Roy is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views.

One of the key ingredients of leadership is communication. How do you connect with your target audience? Well, who you are trying to reach? Essentially, the answer to that question decides the choice of channel. Game-changing technologies influence how you communicate with the young (and the not-so-young) social media-savvy crowd.

What has changed is not just the media. You may have Twitter, Facebook, Yammer and Linkedin accounts. And yet, you may be hopelessly out of sync with the cultural code, new idioms and the unique lingo of social media. A good example: UK’s prime minister David Cameron, misunderstood ‘LOL’ for ‘lots of love’, until Rebekah Brooks pointed it out that it meant ‘laugh out loud’.

Barack Obama is more au fait with social media than Cameron. An example: Ob­a­ma’s presidential election campaign knew that it had more traction than Mitt Romney amongst the young voters. But the outcome he needed was to get them to the polling booth and vote. The traditional channel of reaching out to voters is the telephone. And here was the problem. The databases of young voters in the battleground states like Ohio and Florida showed that almost half the voters did not have a listed landline number. They lived in the world of mobile telephony.

To the traditional campaign office, this absence of data would have presented itself as a crisis. But when creative and young minds are faced with such challenges, they come up with out-of-the-box innovations. Dan Wagner, the 29-year-old head of analytics in the Obama campaign rose to the occasion. Although 50 per cent of the young voters (under the age 29) did not have listed phone numbers, 85 per cent of them could be traced on Facebook. Teddy Goff, the digital director of the Obama campaign and Dan Wagner worked on a unique approach. About one million Obama supporters had permitted the Obama campaign to look at their Facebook friends’ list. They reached the young voters through the social networking site. Here is what Teddy Goff said, “People don’t trust campaigns. They don’t even trust media organisations. Who do they trust? Th­eir friends.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Because social media has become so powerful in shaping opinions, corporate leaders and politicians are going after social media in all manner of ways. Some CEOs and political leaders have signed up for their own Facebook accounts. But most have delegated the task of updating their status to media spin doctors and their minions. In my opinion, this is a grave error. Facebook is a double-edged sword. If the leader is insincere, phoney, pompous, impersonal and hypocritical, Facebook, like the mirror of the witch queen in Snow White, will expose him/her remorselessly.

Some leaders do employ paid volunteers and fake fans to write sycophantic messages. But beware — there are outspoken critics who will disagree, write sarcastic messages or critical comments. One word of advice: do not indulge in faking on Facebook. The volunteers may erase all adverse comments and expunge critical “friends”. But that will bring discredit to their leader and expose him/her as an intolerant, thin-skinned autocrat.

The streak of intolerance in dictators and despots is not new. Joseph Stalin is credited with drafting a special provision in the criminal code infamously known as clause 58, paragraph 10, to throttle “anti-Soviet propaganda”. According to Ben Lewis, author of Hammer and Tickle, this law was designed to keep a check on the wide range of “offences”; “from insults, offhand remarks, curses, cartoons, graffiti, pamphlets and flyers, to jokes. Under this clause, it was forbidden to tell jokes, listen to jokes or to write them down.”

Postings on Facebook in India, particularly cartoons and jokes, are no longer a laughing matter. A combination of factors has contributed to a bizarre situation: the draconian provisions (in particular, Section 66 A) of the Information Technology Act 2000, the high-handed arrogance of political leaders and the mindless behaviour of some servile law enforcement officials. Th­ere have been arrests, attacks and harassment of professors, doctors, students, co­mpany officials and cartoonists for FB postings.

We are witnessing infringement of our civil liberties of freedom of expression and assembly (albeit virtually thr­ough FB). It will be a mistake to take the view that the law is fine, but the problem is in enforcement. The law is not fine. It needs to be reviewed and amended after wider consultation with all stakeholders and constitutional experts.

I have also argued in these columns that electronic me­dia, including the social me­dia, should be brought under a regulatory framework by enlarging the ambit of the Press Council of India and renaming it as Media Council of India. There is a second aspect. It seems that the appetite of some politicians for criticism and dissent is low. There is a flagrant lack of tolerance to divergent views and humorous criticisms. We sh­ould have zero tolerance for such dictatorial tendencies in our democracy.

Facebook connects people across geographies, time zo­nes, demographics and identities. It provides a platform for argumentation and debate among friends who may disagree with each other without being disagreeable. Let us keep it that way.