We don't need to rehash the horror stories. The social media responses to H&M's racist t-shirt. KFC's sexist ogling ad. Dove's white-wash campaign. A local coffee shop's complete misunderstanding of gentrification.
As leaders we see these stories of social activism launched against brands who think they're chugging along in our world just fine, then suddenly face upheavals from activated networks. It's easy to react with disdain at the choice the brand and their agencies made, pointing fingers from our armchairs.
Heck, I've pointed the finger myself. Publicly.
The harder, but more critical, work is considering what underpins the structure of a brand's network and what role it plays in these backlash stories. We tend to peg our attention to the marketing choices and subsequent reputational damage, which is understandable. A public blindside is enough to keep even the most sanguine leader up at night. But the fact is that networks can generate social capital for brands that are capable of limiting the damage or even countering the antagonism.
Before we get into how leaders (or marketers, depending on who works with your social media networks) manage a network structure to build social capital, it's important to understand how network structures fit into social capital creation in the first place.
Savvy leaders understand the importance of three bonds that are responsible for building social capital, and they intentionally curate them in order to generate value from their networks: cognitive, relational, and structural.
Cognitive bonds are the work of your marketing department and agency: A cognitive system of meaning -- a "conceptual apparatus" as social capital researchers call it -- told through stories, symbols, sounds, and smells.
Relational bonds are what we most often think about when leading diverse and thriving teams: Creating safety and trust to attach constituents to something larger than the work at hand.
Structural bonds, which leaders pay far less attention to in my experience, deal with how connections are related, to what extent connections have bridges between other networks, how diverse those connections are, the degree of influence a particular connection has, and their density (or lack thereof). This all plays a role in how a network functions, a leader's role in facilitating action in it, and the social capital they extract from it. And this holds true for internal networks built and curated by leaders, and online networks, as well.
At a base level, influencer marketing reflects our intuitive understanding that different relationships bring different value to networks, and that we can intercede to use it to our advantage.
Structural bonds are so central to social capital leadership that one expert goes so far as to define social capital as the "opportunity structure created by social relationships."
And if you aren't paying attention to your network, as complex and daunting as it may seem, you'd better believe someone else is. One rather harrowing example that I discuss in my book tells the story of a low-level manager at a manufacturing company who took it upon himself to build a systematic process of hiring friends and family over a 30-year period, building a network of influence for his own purposes. He was able to create divisions between his network and the influence of senior leadership so extensive that the founder and CEO totally lost control as the situation spiraled into a state of bomb threats and shootings.
One of social activism's OG stories is Greenpeace's coordinated campaign to draw attention to Nestlé's destruction of orangutan habitats. One of the strategists involved with the campaign told me that he and his team "look for the slightest weakness in a brand's [social network] armor, and we start to pick at it. If it gives, we know we're onto something."
Clearly there's a shortage of working professionals with the leadership skills to develop "network relations that connect people, and to actively manage these network relations," as one leadership paper put it.
So what exactly do social-capital savvy leaders do to manage the structures of their networks?
First, acknowledge that asking the marketing department to curate it is usually a mistake. The groundbreaking book Connected, by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler, has fundamentally changed the way I approach social networks online or in-person, as a leader and as a marketer. As Christakis and Fowler will teach you, social networks are sophisticated systems with histories, memories, even agency -- and with very different roles being played by their various members. A far cry from the audience and channel-thinking which marketers apply to social networks.
Second, get to know the nodes in your network. Find and track influencers, watch for patterns, ask a lot of questions of your network, and rank engagement. Social scientists have terms and networking mapping techniques you can use to add a few fields to your CRM, or you can make up your own tags specific to your context. Either way, practice a discipline of structural awareness.
This may feel overwhelming when you think about online social groups, but it doesn't have to involve a Herculean effort. Savvy social media leaders focused on community instead of marketing find ways to be hands-on at some level. The creator of Xbox's Elite Tweet Fleet (that name never gets old) told me she knew her most engaged followers by name and sometimes met them in person. "It felt like we knew them personally," she told me. And they often did: "We'd meet some of them at gaming conventions where we were asked to speak on panels. [Meeting users] was one of my favorite parts of my job." Another leader who built a million-strong online community for a debt relief organization told me she convinced previously anonymous community members to publicly post advice by "meeting community members where they were," identifying the most insightful posters, and reaching out to them individually and directly. Small acts of hands-on network curation like these can generate tremendous value.
Lastly, build a culture of inclusion and equity, be it within your internal network or online. So-called weak ties are actually the catalyst for tremendous power within networks. But ties that bring diverse backgrounds and networks to the fold won't add their value in an untrusting and unsafe place. So adopt zero tolerance for intolerance. Develop a practice of listening to newcomers. Kill trolls straight away. Widen your network circle by amplifying the voices of the marginalized. And ask how you can add value to networks outside the one you're managing.
Networks alone don't generate value. The actions and activity among them do. Understanding the structure of how that value moves in and about your network is among a leader's most critical skills. It can help you, if not avoid, then at least mitigate those social activist horror stories.