The Most Important Social Media Story of the Week Was Not the Facebook IPO

by , Feb 8, 2012, 2:59 PM
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If you look back on the past week, which was the more important social media story?

1) The filing of Facebook’s  IPO

2) The social media firestorm resulting from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood’s breast-cancer screening initiatives. (You must know by now that this decision was later rescinded.)

OK. You probably know where I’m going with this, but to me, the answer is no. 2.

I have no plan here to wade into the Komen vs. Planned Parenthood debate itself. That’s not the purpose of this column.

But it is fair to say that when you couple this social media brouhaha with the one that engulfed the proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation several weeks ago, what you come away with is the knowledge that many people in official positions in our society are ill-equipped to deal with the voice that social media brings to millions of people. It’s no longer enough for high-profile institutions to get their stories straight and have concise, prepared statements for reporters; now, the role of communications is to gird for whatever might be unleashed in the Blogo/Facebook/Twittersphere and to weigh the power of the social media with the fact that it’s not a focus group. It will always be an imperfect reflection of the world.

But while there is a learning curve for people used to leveraging more traditional channels, there is also no taming of this beast. The two examples above are far from the last times that social media will shine a different light on controversial topics.. And, ultimately, that’s more important than the Facebook IPO.

In both the case of the Komen/Planned Parenthood dispute and the SOPA/PIPA controversy, it wasn’t just about which side of each issue people were on. In broader terms, both pitted entrenched patterns of power-wielding and decision-making vs. the completely unwieldy onslaught of the digital age. Both SOPA/PIPA advocates, and the Komen Foundation, got it wrong when they thought the decisions they were making were solely the province of the people who were in the room at the time.

For the SOPA/PIPA legislation, it was about legislators and old-line media companies trying to strike deals in rooms that most of us will never have access to. In the case of the Komen foundation, it may have been a different room, but the atmosphere of cloistered decision-making, away from the prying eyes of the social-media-enabled public, was the same.

Given the divisiveness of the abortion debate, it’s astounding that its executives actually thought they could keep a decision quiet that was so deeply intertwined with this issue. As a journalist turned PR person once said to me, “The only way to keep a secret among three people is to shoot two of them.” And that was way before 845 million people were on Facebook.

Some of you may want to point out that, in the case of the SOPA/PIPA debate, there was plenty of orchestration by entrenched interests -- only that they were in Silicon Valley and created the tools that the other entrenched interests were railing against. It’s not entirely clear with the Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy whether there was any orchestration behind it -- a firestarter, if you will --  though there have been allegations that’s the case.

I certainly don’t have the inside knowledge to know whether that’s true or not. But given the last few weeks, I’m beginning to wonder just how much -- or little -- orchestration matters when it comes to hot-button issues. (No, I don’t wonder this about things like social media distribution; you can’t just post a video on YouTube and watch it go viral.)

As is so often the case, the first I knew of the Komen controversy was on Facebook. A former colleague, and breast cancer survivor, had posted what became a very popular e-card last week, which said: “Thank you for cutting off cancer screening programs to prove that you are pro-life.” After that, the topic dominated my newsfeed, even, arguably, more than the Facebook IPO.

Whether you agree with the sentiment posted by my Facebook friend or not, she had to want to post that. The woman who made the card had to want to create it as well.

No amount of orchestration can make that happen.

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