Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Limbaugh controversy comes with social-media lesson

March 24, 2012

On Feb. 23, a law student from Georgetown University named Sandra Fluke testified in front of a congressional panel about the controversial subject of insurance coverage for contraception. Six days later, one of talk radio’s biggest stars, Rush Limbaugh, called her names on the air that aren’t common fodder for a sober business publication. Within hours of that utterance, the networks collectively known as “social media” were alight with indignation. Within days, dozens of advertisers had fled Limbaugh’s show.

The pressure brought on Limbaugh’s advertisers was through technology that wasn’t commonly used back when the talk radio host was building his successful brand.

Radio was, in its time, the biggest megaphone humanity had ever known. Thanks to billions of dollars in equipment, business investment and airwaves value, Limbaugh can reach his millions of listeners with no more effort than speaking into a microphone every day. But until recently, it wasn’t convenient for others to respond en masse to Limbaugh. He takes the occasional listener call, but he has the upper hand in all conversations.

That’s no longer the case. The Internet has spawned social media, such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, among many others. Social media puts vast numbers of people in touch with one another and with business organizations.

Many companies were initially hesitant to have much to do with social media, but eventually one after the other dived in. The benefits were too obvious to ignore. Communication was fast and bidirectional. Companies could find out almost instantly what consumers were happy with, and what they were upset about. Customers could be contacted either selectively or collectively. The communications loop between company and customer, which had been as wide as the time it took for letters to be exchanged, became as short as hours or even minutes.

While the benefits were huge, the corporate hesitation was understandable. Once a company makes the effort to snuggle up closer to the consumer, it’s tough to disengage, and it’s almost impossible to tell where the relationship might lead. If the vox populi suddenly becomes agitated as a unit, a protest can grow from a grumble to a seismic roar within hours. And there is little chance of stopping it.

The Arab Spring that has recently reshaped the politics of the Middle East was partly fueled by social media. Atrocities are no longer local, and perceived outrage is no longer safely unidirectional, as Limbaugh discovered. When he uttered his slur against Fluke, the backlash started within hours and swelled to a peak in a couple of days, engulfing some 45 separate advertisers on Limbaugh’s show, according to the media site ThinkProgress (thinkprogress.org).

The Limbaugh story continues to develop as this is written, but it is clear Limbaugh’s critics have adroitly used social media to damage him. There are enough issues here to keep a phalanx of pundits busy for months. For example, there’s the question of free speech and whether Limbaugh should be chastised by the same FCC that finally drove shock jock Howard Stern to the safer confines of satellite radio.

But my interest is in the technology that seems poised to push Limbaugh, if not out of the studio, perhaps into a corner. That technology has proven to be even more influential than radio and television put together, yet there is no central control. Social media has no boss, no funneling organization. It’s emergent, the collective behavior of hordes of independent decision-makers. And it has the power to both rapidly build and abruptly destroy businesses. Where rumor once spread with the speed of the phone message, social media can spread it far faster, as quickly as users can type.

Unlike point-to-point technology like phones, social media can establish ad hoc networks of news that link together like nerve cells. Imagine a network of 25 friends connected at the edges to other similarly sized networks. All it takes is two messages to pass the word to a total of 49 individuals in two networks, and it can be done in seconds. The spread of the message is exponential. Every one of the recipients can then send a message to each of the Limbaugh advertisers through the channels the advertisers have already established in hopes of happier exchanges. The effect is monstrously huge and terrifyingly fast.

Business reputation has never been so valuable, and so vulnerable. Several Limbaugh advertisers hadn’t chosen to be affiliated with his show; they had bought spare airtime rather than specific shows. But they were caught in the landslide, too. We live in an era of instant-everything, and it should be no surprise that we have instant PR crises, too, courtesy of the very technologies we hope will give us advantage.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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