Friday, 13 May 2016

Get with it!

Whether you like it or not, whether you’re a supplier, a store owner, or a consumer (and most of us are at least two of those) you really need to get with today’s technology. Do you want to be in 2016 or 1916? If it’s the latter, then I’ll wish you goodbye because you’re almost certainly dead already. If you aren’t then you will be soon.

Top of your technological To Do List should be Facebook. Even though many people are resistant to it, Facebook is a bit like rain. Whether you like it or not it’s there and you better get used to it. If you’re smart you’ll actually embrace it and perhaps even exploit it.

According to current estimates there are currently more than 1.5 billion users of Facebook worldwide and statistics for 2015 suggested that a greater proportion of people in Botswana are using Facebook than in South Africa and Namibia. In fact, we have one of the highest “penetration rates” of any African country. So whether suppliers and stores like it or not, their customers are on Facebook.

The problem is that Facebook is scary. It worries businesses because it’s a very good example of the anarchy that the Internet offers. It’s free speech at it’s most free.

Sometimes too free.

A few weeks ago someone posted a slightly silly joke in our Facebook group. Posted by a black member of our group, it made a flippant comment about black people and their shopping habits. It was a harmless and most people saw the funny side.

But that’s when the trouble started.

Another member of the group, who was of a much paler shade, posted a comment in Afrikaans that used one of the words that white people like me just don’t use. In English it said “Typical K****r”.

Unfortunately, the timing was bad. She posted it late one evening and because we were really busy we didn’t check Facebook until lunchtime the following day. By that time a firestorm had erupted. Hundreds of people had been enraged. Understandably and quite rightly.

As soon as I saw it I removed the original jokey post and every subsequent comment. Not because the reaction was unfair, but because people were becoming more and more angry and threats had been made.

One of my favorite legal quotes comes from Sir Stephen Sedley, a British Appeal Court judge. Ruling on a case about whether horrible people are allowed to say horrible things, he said:
“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”
That’s the danger with Facebook. The racist member of our group was exercising her right to free speech. Just like she was exercising her right to be prosecuted for breaching Section 92 of the Penal Code which forbids the expression of racial hatred. The law is simple. If you have racist thoughts, keep them to yourself because the rest of us have a right not to be burdened by your hate-filled character.

Her problem was that the hatred she expressed was ghastly and more than just unpopular. Her words were more than just a bit provocative and challenging. They were close to provoking violence. Against her. But she deserved to be shunned, not thumped.

A few months ago a major organization, one you’ll all know, asked for our opinion on how they should use Facebook. What could they do, they wanted to know, to cope with the avalanche of complaints and criticisms about them on Facebook?

Firstly, I said, you have to understand that Facebook is just like a bar full of drunks. Some people, when they’ve had a few drinks, become more sociable, a bit noisier and sway a bit. Other people fall asleep. The problem is that a small proportion turn nasty. We’ve all probably known that person. After a certain number of drinks they stop being a reasonable person and they become a monster. These bad drunks then stimulate their fellow drinkers into further misbehavior. That’s when fights start.

So how do you deal with it? If you’re the manager in such a bar, what do you do? Do you get drunk too? Do you start shouting? Do you get rough? Do you start throwing punches? No. You do your best to calm things down. You use the old-fashioned psychological techniques to calm things down. And then you kick them out.

You manage Facebook in exactly the same way. Never over-react. Never give in to the temptation to throw punches. Never get drunk in the Facebook bar.

If you can do this, then Facebook can actually be a remarkable place for your company. There’s one chain of stores I know who get their fair share of complaints in our Facebook group but every single time it gets fixed. A representative of the company always responds publicly, asking for direct contact details from the aggrieved person and then contacting them, apologizing lie they mean it and offering a solution.

The splendid irony is that this chain is probably more popular now than if the complaints had never been posted, than if the problems had never occurred. By showing themselves to be mature, modern and able to take criticism constructively, they’re probably more respected than they were before.

Is your company prepared to do the same, to embrace the modern era rather than running away from it? Are you prepared to treat social media not as a potential predator for you business, but as fertllizer?

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