After reading about what happened to Adria Richards last week, I was struck by a couple of things.
First, I wish we could spend even half as much time educating men on the etiquette of telling really stupid penis jokes in mixed company at professional conferences as, say, the time we spend sending death threats and rape threats to the woman who called out some guys for telling really stupid penis jokes in mixed company at a professional conference.
But that's just me.
Second, what happened to Adria Richards is the new normal. And our profession is completely unprepared for it.
Cultural conflict has always been a part of business, and social media has intensified some conflicts. Most people in PR have a story about a client who offended a customer and the issue blow up on Twitter or Facebook. But we're well beyond an angry tweet or a viral video now. We're at the point where a 15-year-old kid with some basic computer skills and a little audacity can cripple a company or destroy a person's life.
A small group of even amateur hackers (or sometimes a single hacker) can bring down an industry's entire commerce platform for an indefinite time, or steal and share a company's trade secrets, or even publish a person's most private and sensitive information.
So while big companies can afford sophisticated defense systems, the same idiot-proofed digital technology that helps mid-sized and small companies compete on a global scale allows hackers to attack them. And since startup companies don't have the resources to invest in hacker-proof systems (not that such a thing exists), they're easier targets. Even tech companies, like, say, SendGrid.
The larger problem, however, is the cultural phenomenon that this same technology has accelerated - homophily. (I've written about homophily before.)
Digital technology has prompted consumers to curate their own news streams and collect the information that fits their interest and their world view. People organize into groups that reflect those interests and world views - like Facebook groups, boards on Reddit or 4chan, and so on. When people do this, they form very tight-knit communities that share deep and rich experiences with each other. The more time they spend with each other and not with anyone else, they also develop skewed perspectives of reality, and they grow more strident in those views, especially when challenged.
Professor Alice Marwick put it really well as she examined the recent controversy: "When people with likeminded beliefs congregate together, they collectively move to a more extreme position."
What's more, online forums often provide a modicum of anonymity to the people who gather there. Anonymity can certainly provide a safe haven for a whistleblower or a victim - but it also provides an easy out for those who want to avoid accountability. When you don't own your words, you can say anything you want - and push that community to that more extreme position.
And so we get an anonymous comment to Dr. Marwick's piece, calling her an "attention-seeking drama queen with an agenda" and another saying she's an "overly sensitive publicity seeker." Yet somehow techies with aggressively-cultivated personal brands like Robert Scoble, David Winer, CC Chapman, Dave Taylor, Jason Falls, Jason Calcanis, Michael Arrington, or Leo Laporte can make any number of provocative statements or public "call-outs" on "minor" things without receiving a single rape threat. Tell a woman that they should keep things quiet and polite and many will tell you - without hiding behind a sophomoric pseudonym like "A Canned Ham" - that it doesn't work.
So as people with homophily-enhanced anger issues and reasonable technical skills decide to attack our clients (remember, SendGrid got attacked in this fiasco as well), PR firms and professionals have a lot of work to do.
First, we have to add strong security expertise to our firms and our professional offerings, or at least to our networks, to fight off the basic attacks we can easily predict. Most of us aren't anywhere close to where we need to be. We need people who can effectively translate security concepts and practices to the worlds of PR, strategic communications, and marketing. I think the list starts with Jennifer Leggio, and there are others.
Second, we have to provide the right kind of training for PR professionals to help recognize and address these issues - recognizing that the companies most at risk are the small/mid-sized startup types who, if they have outside PR help at all, tend to use a sole practitioner or a small firm. I can see someone like Kellye Crane working with experts on this and providing this kind of training to solo PR's as well as big firms.
Third, we have to revolutionize our social media monitoring. Keyword searches that give you yesterday's Twitter mentions don't cut it. We need digital explorers who have no fear of joining new and unfamiliar communities to learn what's really happening - so they can provide subjective, predictive counsel to a client and the rest of the team. I'm not talking about a covert operation here, posing as an activist or lurking in a chat room. I'm talking about transparent entry with sincere gestures of goodwill and even advocacy when appropriate. (OK, that's pretty much what I like to do.)
Finally - and this is the long-term, big picture, probably-impossible-but-we-still-have-to-try thing - we must work with people like Dr. Marwick to develop strategies that overcome the negative impacts of homophily. We will never resolve certain conflicts and we will have tribalism as long as we have tribes. But if PR firms can't figure out a way to more effectively take what we know about "third party validators"or business diplomacy and apply it to the most provincial online communities, if we can't prod our clients to get out of the bunker when things get tough, if we decide writing off entire communities is less expensive than building allies and understanding, then we've failed our clients and we've failed ourselves.