The January 6 Insurrection in the US and Social Media: Lessons for African Companies
The January 6 Insurrection in the United States has had several well-documented consequences. They include (1) the banishment of President Trump and many others from social media for violations of the sites’ terms of service and (2) the shockingly sudden demise of Parler, a conservative social media site with tens of millions of users. Parler was launched as a conservative alternative to Twitter in particular. It would be understandable to view these consequences strictly through an American political lens. After all, these are American companies taking action against American political actors, all within the framework of American laws. However, I believe that the global reach and adoption of these American social media giants make an in-principle decision they make in their home country relevant to the rest of the world. More specifically, and concerning the African continent (an area of great interest to me), I contend that African companies, and actors in the African private sector in general, must pay close attention to these extraordinary developments. These bold measures have significant real and potential implications in two areas: (1) social media strategy as a subset of marketing strategy, and (2) business continuity.
SOCIAL MEDIA STRATEGY
A social media presence is a must for any company seeking to develop an efficient and well-rounded marketing strategy. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn (all US companies) have become household names worldwide. For African companies, and more particularly those in the B2C space, social media presence is now expected, especially for financial services institutions and FMCG companies. The often inefficient communication ecosystem in many African countries, coupled with the boom in mobile telephony and social media adoption in the African population, has turned social media into platforms that African business can leverage to leapfrog years, if not decades of lag in their communication outreach approaches and make them closer to the international best practices in the area. Increasingly, social media is the primary marketing channel for some firms. It is the best channel to reach a broad and diversified customer base (especially millennials). It is much cheaper than traditional media and provides access to direct market feedback and unparalleled customer analytics. With all the benefits of a well-crafted social media strategy come responsibilities (understanding the terms of service) and risks (mostly reputational.) Let’s look at the lessons from the Donald Trump ban from a social media strategy standpoint.
Lesson #1 — Social media platforms have (capricious) rules.
Users on social media platforms get suspended or banned every day. However, the Trump case opened the eyes of many to the “mystery” surrounding the terms of service and the confusion over what constitutes a transgression of such terms, as he was allowed to violate terms that would have gotten a regular user banned a long time ago. African companies that are already on social media must understand the terms of service of the platforms they use and monitor their accounts, especially if they have outsourced the management of said account to digital marketing agencies or independent community managers (CMs.) These platforms, which already had a very active internal monitoring team (@TwitterSafety, for example), are going to be even more sensitive to reported abuse (or perceived abuse) by users, and companies should not expect to get the “Donald Trump VIP treatment.”
Lesson #2 — Know your Community Manager.
Whether you hire an in-house community manager or outsource to a digital marketing agency, the interview/vetting process of your CM is critical. You need to run your due diligence on their experience, professionalism, understanding of your marketing needs, and most importantly, their mastery of the platforms on which they will post on your behalf. To mitigate any reputational disaster, you want to make sure that your CM has the proper experience and maturity to handle all of the situations thrown at them without creating a reputational crisis for the company. If you outsource, your digital marketing agency must propose a protocol that requires (1) senior management approval for the overall messaging and (2) in-house sign-off from a marketing executive or properly mandated management professional for individual posts or tweets.
Lesson #3 — Senior management must monitor the content of the company’s social media messaging.
Once senior management has approved a marketing strategy, it needs to spot-check that social media posts and interactions conform to the key messaging ideas. Ideally, all senior managers should follow their company’s account(s) and review them periodically. It is not just about the one disastrous post that could land a company in trouble and get suspended. It could also be about an issue with the post that may cast a negative light on the company (spelling mistakes, wrong choice of photo collateral, etc.) In companies that perform customer service engagement on social media, being combative or disrespectful to a customer is quite certain to create a reputation problem. A company should not want to go viral for the wrong reasons.
The demise of Parler raises many issues that companies should be aware of and pay attention to. But first, what is Parler? According to Wikipedia, “Parler markets itself as a “free speech” and unbiased alternative to mainstream social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.” It is an American social network that became popular in mid-2020 when Twitter started applying warning labels to tweets by Donald Trump. Many of his supporters migrated to Parler to escape what they viewed as censorship on other platforms. Following the January 6 Insurrection, the Parler mobile app was removed by Apple and Google for its failure to moderate unacceptable speech, in violation of these companies’ terms of service. Then Amazon, which hosts Parler, canceled its hosting contract, effectively shutting down Parler unless it found another hosting service. What has not been widely reported is that, as soon as Amazon issued its notice, Parler’s B2B service providers (payment processor, two-factor authentication, etc.) also canceled their services, thereby negatively affecting the social network’s functionality and user experience.
Lesson #4 — Maintain relationships with multiple service providers for mission-critical services
Once the dominos started falling for Parler, it found itself in the unenviable situation of having no alternative for its mission-critical services. Given the unique circumstances of its situation, it is not likely that Parler could have survived. However, the lesson for companies is quite clear: service providers could disappear, or stop providing services, unexpectedly and relatively quickly. Having alternative providers that can take over on short notice is essential. Financial services and FMCG companies should be sensitive to that.
Lesson #5 — Manage your reputational risk properly
Parler’s demise was triggered by its inability to properly monitor its users’ speech, in violation of its providers' terms of service. This brings us full circle to the first three lessons regarding social media management. If a company does not pay close attention to its social media presence and runs afoul of Terms of Service, then a cascading chain of service cancellations could, and most likely will, cripple its operations. Companies that are highly reliant on technology for payments, customer service, etc., could see their revenue generation disappear overnight or their existence wiped out quickly (less than 3 days in the case of Parler.) Companies must also have a crisis management plan to address any negative event proactively (from service provider substitution to communication outreach to legal advice.) That should be the most important lesson African companies can draw from events that happened far away and did not seem connected to either Africa or the private sector.
Finally, all the social media companies on which African companies rely are Western and almost overwhelmingly American. Given the importance of social media nowadays as a critical part of business infrastructure, overreliance on service providers located outside of our borders will need to be addressed. Until local alternatives emerge — and some are — American companies will continue to dominate the space for the foreseeable future. For now, we must accept that inclusion and exclusion decisions will be taken entirely outside of our control, leaving African users with no access to speedy and context-sensitive recourse.