Business Psychology

Article No. 383
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

A Social Media Horror Story

An example of emotional blindness harming an organization.

Madeline Toubiana from the University of Alberta recently dug into the history of a social media horror story that was visited upon a nonprofit charitable organization in Canada she identified as DDF. The DDF organization conducts research and provides care for sufferers of a degenerative disease she referred to as DD. It was a difficult two-year ordeal for them that left the organization shaken and the executives contrite. There was a low point where the organization's very survival was challenged. Professor Toubiana wants other users of social media, Facebook especially, to take notice. There's danger in those waters.

A single event triggered the upheaval: an article in the national media reporting a new, unexpected treatment for the illness that was the focus of the organization. The article generated hope among patients. They hoped that the treatment would soon be available in Canada, but it only generated doubt among the scientists who conducted the research into the disease. They were not impressed with the news article. The collision of hope and doubt triggered a process of emotional escalation that occurred smack in the middle of Facebook and was vividly displayed for all to see.

Social media experts routinely advise business owners to set some roots in the social media world, but they also advise a slow, careful entry. The experience of the DDF is instructive to explain to us how to be careful.

Toubiana chronicled four stages of the social media experience for DDF. In the first, members joyfully posted comments and links on the Federation's Facebook page that celebrated the good news of the new treatment. This period of euphoria clearly expressed the expectation that the DDF would immediately begin advocating for sufferers to receive this new treatment in Canada. Executives of the Federation responded dispassionately that the new treatment had not met sufficient scientific scrutiny for the DDF to make a positive recommendation, and it would not do so. Euphoria soon gave way to bitterness and a sense of betrayal, and it led to the second stage. During this phase, members leveled shaming messages at the organization and its leaders. This was a desperate influencing technique to turn the DDF to the task of advocating for the new treatment. DDF executives continued to respond dispassionately with the logic of the careful scientific researcher. Facebook enabled the resulting drama to be amplified to an alarming degree, and the DDF was forced to enforce some censorship on the Facebook page and block some individuals completely.

The third phase found members so angry and alienated that they used Facebook to initiate efforts to attack the legitimacy of the DDF and replace it with a competing entity. As DDF executives realized their danger, they initiated the fourth phase during which they finally listened to the emotions members were expressing and responded with regret and mollification for their previous responses. This finally defused the roiling passions and allowed a shaky truce to take hold, but damage had been done, and the DDF is still recovering.

Hope, betrayal, and anger were the key emotions displayed in the DDF experience that business owners need to hear. Hope reveals an expectation of the individual for a particular response. Betrayal reveals pain and disappointment in the failure of that response. It results in shaming which is a last chance to bring about the desired response. When this fails, anger results and leads to destructive reactions like shunning. Social media insures amplification of the entire process and allows a few individuals to do great damage.

Business owners don't own social media. It is a mistake to expect communication to be only one way from the firm to the public. Listening for emotion is crucial, and responding with appreciation for that emotion is necessary before anyone will listen to what you have to say. With social media, lots of people are watching and listening.

Reference: Toubiana, Madeline and Charlene Zietsma (2017) THE MESSAGE IS ON THE WALL? EMOTIONS, SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE DYNAMICS OF INSTITUTIONAL COMPLEXITY. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 60, No. 3, 922-953

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Keywords: Social media
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