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Are We Headed for a ‘Corporate Spring’?

Cross-posted from the Public Affairs Council blog

It’s hard not to laugh at the Occupy Wall Street campaign, the bizarre group of protesters who recently shut down the Brooklyn Bridge and, dressed as corporate zombies, staggered past the New York Stock Exchange, chanting, “How to fix the deficit: End the war, tax the rich!”

But there was something familiar in the media interviews. “We want a voice, and our voice has slowly been degraded over time,” a St. Louis man told USA Today. An unemployed woman from Connecticut said in The Wall Street Journal that too many people have been dismissive of the protests. “The only way to do it is to show them, to make them open their eyes.”

Substitute the word “government” for “corporation” in the signs and slogans, give them a wardrobe change and a few gray hairs, and they’d look a lot like the early tea party demonstrators.

There are major differences, of course, beginning with the fact that conservative politicians ran to the front of the tea party line to promote their causes. Many liberal politicians have been skittish about being associated with the folks sleeping in a Manhattan park since Sept. 17. While the tea party founders actually organized protests, the group behind the Wall Street demonstrations decided to bring people together first and then figure out its demands later.

But the anger and desire to take back power from the powerful is the same. And, as the demonstrations spread to Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and other cities, major unions like the AFL-CIO and advocacy groups like MoveOn.org are now on board. The mainstream media — no doubt ready to make the same tea party comparison — will surely follow, especially as we enter an election year. The politicians won’t be far behind.

Meanwhile, across the globe, larger-scale protests of another type have been taking place, Forbes notes in a must-read cover story called “Social Power and the Coming Corporate Revolution.” Ordinary people, using Facebook and Twitter, have helped to topple dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — and have created instability in Syria. These actions are truly remarkable for the speed with which they brought about change. They also speak of the basic human urge to be heard and respected.

So how does the Arab Spring relate to the Occupy Wall Street crowd?

“This social might is now moving toward your company,” David Kirkpatrick writes in the Forbes article. “We have entered the age of empowered individuals, who use potent new technologies and harness social media to organize themselves.” Neither governments nor companies are prepared to deal with social power.

“The elites — or managers in companies — no longer control the conversation. This is how insurrections start,” Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, a cloud computing company, told Forbes. “This isn’t just about Arab Spring. This is about Corporate Spring.”

While email was the catalyst for early online activism, Facebook, with its 750 million active users in every country in the world, has become an even more potent tool for spreading opinions. Once like-minded people start saying the same thing — whether it’s about favorite movies or corporate greed — these “memes” quickly become part of our common belief system.

Some companies have learned this lesson the hard way. When rugby fans in New Zealand learned they were paying more for Adidas team jerseys than fans in the U.S. and elsewhere, they launched a massive online protest that resulted in customers returning Adidas clothing to stores. When a social media campaign in the Netherlands protested executive bonuses at Amsterdam-based ING, large numbers of people threatened to close their accounts with the bank. According to Forbes, ING’s CEO finally decided to waive his $1.8 million bonus and ordered company directors to follow suit.

In a bad economy, it shouldn’t be surprising that large, profitable companies have become targets for protesters enraged by corporate scandals and high unemployment. These types of demonstrations have gone on for years; the difference now is that inexpensive tools are available to enlist the help of a sympathetic public.

In this new world, writes Kirkpatrick, executives and their companies will need to demonstrate authenticity, fairness, transparency and good faith:

‘If they don’t, customers and employees may come to distrust them, to potentially disastrous effect. Customers who don’t like a product can quickly broadcast their disapproval. Prospective employees don’t have to take your word for what life is like at your company — they can find out from people who already work there. And longtime loyal employees now have more options to launch their own, more fleet-footed startups, which could become your fiercest competitors in the future.’

Clearly, the best way to manage these changes is to realize you can’t manage them. “And pragmatically,” says Kirkpatrick, “social power can help keep your company vital. Newly armed customer and employee activists can become the source of creativity, innovation and new ideas to take your company forward.” More and more companies, particularly those with high-profile brands, are becoming true believers.

He notes that Gatorade operates a full-time social media command center where it monitors and participates in conversations on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and elsewhere. Ford uses social media to help it design cars and communicate effectively with young consumers.

But learning to be humble and open can be difficult for executives who are used to touting their successes and downplaying their failures. This requires a new way of thinking. “Trust is built by sharing vulnerability,” John Hagel, co-chairman of The Deloitte Center for the Edge, said in the Forbes article. “The more you expose and share your problems, the more successful you become. It’s not about the top executive dictating what needs to be done and when, it’s about providing individuals with the power to connect.”

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