Is Instagram TooLateagram?

It seems a bit ironic that an iconic brand with “instant” in its name may be severely impacted in crisis response by offering “too little, too late.”  “Too late” is now the classic story of much crisis response and may well describe the latest attempt of Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom to quell the storm and restore trust.

The good news is that he has come forward with the appropriate response regarding the attempt to change Terms of Service language to allow the photo-sharing service to sell users photos. His first attempt was weak at best: in it he said basically, legalese is hard for dummies like you to understand but you should know we never intended to sell your photos. Maybe you never intended it, but your lawyers made sure you had that right.

The second attempt is much better. Now Systrom says: “I want to be really clear: Instagram has no intention of selling your photos, and we never did. We don’t own your photos—you do.”  Again, he is saying “intention.” But the critical key is action. He removed the offensive new language and reinstated the old language related to advertising. That is the key.

Big lesson here–he kept talking about intentions, but the language allowed beyond what he said his intentions were. Actions speak louder than words. The only meaningful thing he did was to remove the silly and offensive language.

Systrom also has committed to engaging with his customers before doing something this crazy again. Good idea. I don’t know how many big brands will have to stumble and even fall before they realize we live in a different era than a few years ago. Bank of America, Verizon, the Gap, Komen Foundation, Netflix, even the US Congress all have had learn a painful lesson that we no longer live in a time of making decisions behind closed doors, no matter how rational those decisions seem to be. Basic business decisions that used to be the sole right of the C-suite and board to decide on now require consultation.

Now Instagram will be added to that list of those who had to learn that lesson painfully. Engage, folks, engage. Or potentially pay a high price. And, if you forget that lesson and fiind yourself facing the wrath of the digital lynchmob, for the sake of your future, take action instantly–not days later. Or you may be another “Tolateagram.”



Healthy food is on the table for 2013

You might have noticed my “growing” interest in food related issues. Partly a result of having some clients in agriculture, partly having some fairly strong opinions about the scare tactics activists and the media are using around food safety for their benefit–and to the potential harm of others. Partly probably because two years ago I moved onto a small farm and am greatly enjoying my own foods from great beef to fresh eggs to a garden loaded with more than we can eat.

The food industry is in crisis. The crisis occasionally erupts into full-blown, high profile battles like pink slime and the GMO name calling attack on Cheerios. I’m bothered by these kinds of events because the profit-motivated fear mongering behind them is causing so many to irrationally fear the food they eat. But attitudes toward food are seriously shifting and that is the essence of the crisis. Whether this is caused by the fear-mongering, or the fear-mongering is profitable because of the shifting attitudes, who can say? It’s a chicken and egg question. (Farm analogies come easy to me these days.)

Fleishmann-Hillard and have published a study called Cart to Kitchen 2013. The study focuses on mothers’ attitude toward food choices and what influences them. This study is very helpful for those interested in the food crisis and points to some important ways to deal with it if you are in agriculture, food processing or manufacturing and retailing.

Some key points from the study:

What changes will mom’s make in food choices in 2013?
– 78% said save more money
– 68% said buy healthier food
– 49% said buy less processed food

There’s more but these are the critical ones. There is a potential contradiction here in buying cheaper and healthier foods, but the trend toward healthier choices is undeniable. 56% of moms say they occasionally buy organic now and nearly 30% say they will buy organic more often in 2013.

What are moms concerned about in their food?
– sugar substitutes 56%
– calories  45%
– additives and preservatives  40%
– fats  39%

Having just read the Economist’s special section on obesity, it seems food consumers are very right to be concerned particularly about calories. My concern here is that fears over sugar substitutes keep people from buying lower calorie foods–particularly drinks. Those activists and media seriously concerned about health issues may want to treat any new stories about the dangers from sugar substitutes with extra caution.

I think one of the most interesting things about this study is who most influences mom’s decisions about food safety, nutrition, health, etc. 78% said food program on TV but after that, almost everything is online. 77% said food media website, 72% said food brand email, 65% said facebook for food brands and food companies, 53% said mobile app, 52% said a food brand twitter account, 50% said food magazine, 46% said food brand blog, 43% said celebrity or expert blog, and so on.

This is interesting compared to some other data which says that on issues of major safety and health concerns, such as GMOs, artificial flavors and colors, pesticides and food sources, moms most trust food and mom blogs. On the subject of GMOs, they trust blogs 39% compared to just 15% for physicians and 18% for nutritionists.

This has great significance for those in the food business from farmers to retailers to engage with bloggers. Mommy bloggers and food bloggers look to be the primary influencers on issues of food safety, health benefits, etc.

Education is critical in this industry, as is transparency. But it essential that those in this business feeding the world with healthy, safe food get the word out to mommy and food bloggers right away.



Instagram–is this the dumbest move ever? (and it gets worse)

I’m following with interest the online hubbub over instagram. The short of it is Instagram, owned by Facebook, changed their Privacy Policy and Terms of Service to include their right to sell the images on Instagram to anyone without any compensation. Not sure if they were going to let you know first, or just sell them.

This is not sitting well with the digital lynch mob. I’ve already seen major organizations or industry groups sending emails out to their broad lists encouraging any Instagram account holders to immediately delete their accounts.

The hashtag #boycottinstagram is going nuts–info on how to delete existing photos and your account, and lots of folks saying “bye bye instagram.”

Checking instgrams twitter (13 million followers) they are clearly feverishly working because it says right now (1:30p PST) “We’ll have more to share soon.” I suspect they will, and I fully suspect the offensive language will be very quickly removed.

Some quick lessons before  this insta-crisis goes away:

– crises come and go so quickly these days that they may be over almost before most of the world wakes up to them
– as fast as they go, the damage likely will linger–I fully expect that Instagram will suffer from a loss of trust and lost accounts for a considerable time after they reverse this dumb policy
– Facebook will not escape this–the behemoth is likely too big to be hurt too bad by this and they may come out and say that while they own Instagram they did not approve this policy or something like that. Even with that, they will be hurt by perception of lack of oversight. I expect the damage to be slight, but any loss of trust with the digital lynch mob is pretty serious when you are in the online business.


Since part of this story is the speed of these online crises emerging, and the speed of response, I’m continuing to track this. I went back to their twitter and found this link to the blog:

Frankly, I’m surprised and amazed at this. Yes, they say they are listening, but when you read it you get the idea they are saying–it’s not our fault you silly people don’t know how to read a legal agreement. But, we may modify some language to make it easier for you dummies to understand. Here’s what it says: Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.

But, here is what their revised terms state: “To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

Hmm, if that was their intention they may need to get a new lawyer. Or have some PR folks look over the legal agreement before publishing it.

My take–Instagram is digging a deeper hole. Like Netflix before, there was really only one way out of this. A very very fast response that said: Oops, we goofed. We’re sorry. We won’t sell your photos and won’t use your name, likeness or anything that belongs to you without your permission.”

Instead, they said: We’re listening, and we’ve decided you don’t know how to read legal documents. Instagram, you’re in trouble.

An unspeakable tragedy beyond words

Like you probably, I’ve thought much and grieved much over the unspeakable events in Connecticut. But my reaction was to studiously avoid the media as much as I could. My phone kept going with the quiet alarm of another AP mobile update–but soon I stopped looking at those, too. I didn’t turn to twitter to see what was going on. And I turned to no news channels to get the latest.

I thought I may be the only person in America to have that response, but I noted Bill Boyd in his blogpost reacted similarly, even if he indulged in early twitter monitoring.

I’m sickened by this event, sickened by the evil and twisted life that caused such horror and heartbreak, sickened thinking about the young lives, their parents, their grandparents, sickened by how our media covers this sort of thing, sickened by the politics already playing out, sickened by the national debate that is certain to follow. Sickened by the inevitability and ugliness of it all.

There are those who will find others to blame. I received this video not long after the event about a similar event in Germany in 2009 and how the media was blamed for instigating these events. It does contain some very thoughtful advice on how the media can cover it without perhaps having the effect that it does.

UPDATE: One standard feature of news reports is emotional reaction from families of victims. It’s a tough job for a reporter to get the interview at a time of great grief. And many have turned to social media to locate potential interviewees–but as this Poynter story makes clear, it’s a potential trap for a reporter to solicit interviews through social media. The outrage gives a small indication of how many feel about this practice.

But, as hard as I am often on the media I am no more inclined to blame them for this event as I am the gun lobby.

This event will change us, no doubt. How, no one can predict for certain. Already there are those ready to take action. And that is what makes such events so hard to take. That one twisted, sick, evil person can cause so much heartbreak and so much reaction–or overreaction. Will our schools become fortresses now? Will every child be reminded for the next many years by traipsing through a body scanner? Will a School Security Administration be created with hundreds of thousands of armed guards? Will every mentally disturbed young person with the slightest inclination toward violence be put in protective custody? Or will we just take away the guns?




First Shell, now ExxonMobil–the oil industry haters strike low blows

Shell Oil was attacked by Greenpeace and the Yes Men back in early summer in a sophisticated, cynical social media strategy. One of the key features was creating videos and a website that looked so much like the real Shell ads and website that it was bound to confuse.

I predicted that this would not be the last of this sort of campaign. Sure enough, now ExxonMobil is being targeted in this particularly dark and cynical ad-lookalike. It’s called “Exxon hates your children.” It does seem to have the almost redeeming qualities that the anti-Shell campaign had of being first, original, exceedingly clever and somewhat lighthearted despite the very serious intent.

Does it work? If measured by interest and views and people like me commenting on it, it works very well. The Greenpeace website got 4 million views and their fake Shell twitter account got 6 million followers. One Greenpeace staffer said: “It was a way to repackage the issue and to take Shell’s ‘Let’s Go’ advertising campaign and subvert it in a way that made sure our campaign about saving the Arctic reached a wider audience.”

The question of course here is, what are you to do if someone high-jacks your brand, creates spoof ads mimicing yours, and even dupes people into thinking their sites or tweets are from the company? The answer I suggested in my PR Strategist article was: not much. Grin and bear it. Monitor and work to make sure facts are accurate.

I tend to believe that the long term reaction to this sort of thing will not be positive for those crafting these campaigns. Certainly, they will have their true believers behind them–but they’ll be behind them no matter what they do. Battles for public opinion always (or they should) focus on those in the middle, those who can be swayed one way or the other, the saveables vs, the saints or sinners. What will those in the middle think of this approach? That is is unfair, devious, dishonest, lacking in transparency?

Ever the optimist, that’s my hope.

However, if it appears this tactic is successful. I have a suggestion for Shell, ExxonMobil and all others victimized by these reputation hoodlums: do a spoof on them. Hmmm, I can imagine it now. The scripting session would be a real kick.



GMO controversy now hits General Mills and Cheerios hard

As if to illustrate the point I was making about the coming controversies around GMO foods, General Mills looks to have lost control of its Facebook page over GMO concerns.

An activist organization has “outed” Cheerios as having GM ingredients resulting in what appears to be Cheerio’s and General Mills losing control of their Facebook page.

Curious about what horrible, baby-killing ingredient that General Mills was sneaking into their breakfast cereal, I tried to get some info about the genetically modified ingredients causing all the stir. Sadly, the only thing I could find was all-out fear tactics without any real information or evidence of risk.

Here is the “expose” of Cheerios ingredients–except other than saying Cheerios has GM ingredients, I can’t find where they specifically point out what ingredient, what makes it GM, and why that is bad.

Here’s a listing of GM and Non-GM Foods, but I can’t for the life of me find an explanation of the basis they have for making these determinations.

Admittedly, I haven’t spent hours digging for the bad stuff that everyone is afraid of. But if those so concerned about “truth in food” want me to know the truth, why do they make it so hard to find?

The listing of GM foods is very interesting, for two reasons. One, it is clear that the majority of foods we now eat would fall under these folk’s definition of GM–which in itself indicates that the scare tactics are way out of line. With rare exception, our food is safe. And attaching a dreadfully frightening label to it does not make it unsafe. The second reason is that everyone of those brands and brands that use those targeted ingredients are under a cloud. The sword of Damocles swings slowly above them. Today it is Cheerios, tomorrow, someone else.

That being said, General Mills called this special attack on themselves by supporting the campaign to defeat Proposition 37, the GMO labeling initiative that was defeated in California in the last election. Doing this, they put a big target on their backs and it has not taken long for the activists to take their revenge.

What’s General Mills to do? Hmmm, tough, Change their name? I suspect that the wild-eyed out there are already trying to equate GM with GM. Genetically modified with  General Mills. Ouch.

There is only one answer to this issue, it seems, which is education. And this is far beyond the scope of General Mills alone–this affects a good part of the agriculture, food processing and food manufacturing industries in addition to retailing. Genetic modification needs to be understood in simple, non-technical ways and its safety fully, completely and honestly discussed. The ignorant fear attached to that term must be removed. But until the public becomes more educated and the activists forced to be more honest, the fear tactic of attaching the term GM or GMO to a targeted enemy will be very effective.

The really sad thing is not the General Mills is being harmed. But mothers will stop feeding their children one of the few breakfast cereals not loaded with sugar out of an irrational fear. While I’m a bit skeptical of the overblown cholesterol reducing claims of Cheerios, there is not question it is one of the healthier diet alternatives. But all that goodness and the benefits it provided may be lost in this cloud of fear. Sad really, and evil in its own way.


GMO–salmon in headlines now, but this is just a start

The FDA is stalling approval of a GMO salmon being produced by AquaBounty–delays that may force the company out of business. This, despite the FDA finding in 2010 that the fish are safe and pose little harm to natural fish or the environment.

GMO, genetically modified organisms, specifically food and crops is very controversial. Proposition 37, a ballot initiative in California that would have required labeling for GMO food went down to defeat. Backers accused Monsanto, the favorite target of anti-production food activists, for funding a campaign to defeat it. (I’m sure if it had passed, the backers would have proclaimed victory based on the wisdom of the voters, not their own campaign efforts.)

This is one of those subjects that certainly provides more heat than light when it shows up in public discussion and the media.

PR Newser, a PR industry site, clearly shows a strong bias in the issue of AquaBounty and the FDA approval issue in their story about the issue. The headline is “Frankenfish” and the accompanying photo shows a frankenstein-like fish that is hardly appetizing.

I have some biases on these matters of food, food safety and production methods as well. They are:

– science, not emotion, fear tactics and unproven wild accusations should rule
– transparency including labeling and education should be the primary tools used
– unlike most activists, I tend to believe that consumers should have the right to decide food choices for themselves, even when some of those choices seem downright stupid to me
– the eagerness of government agencies and politicians to jump in and make decisions for me and other ignorant consumers is a far bigger problem that whatever it is they are trying to solve

So, let’s look at these issues from that biased standpoint.

1) Science and safety. Here’s what wikipedia says:

There is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional food.[1][2][3][4][5][6] No reports of ill effects have been documented in the human population from GM food.[3][7][8] Supporters of food derived from GMOs hold that food is as safe as other foods and that labels send a message to consumers that GM food is somehow dangerous. They trust that regulators and the regulatory process are sufficiently objective and rigorous, and that risks of contamination of the non-GM food supply and of the environment can be managed. They trust that there is sufficient law and regulation to maintain competition in the market for seeds, believe that GM technology is key to feeding a growing world population, and view GM technology as a continuation of the manipulation of plants that humans have conducted for millennia.

Another reason why I think the science tends to prove the safety is that there are so many out there right now eager for the slightest proof of risk. They (and the media who love these stories that generate fear) are incredibly quick to jump on the slightest evidence. But, none has been produced. (For how the media jump on phony research, here’s an example.)

2. Transparency including labeling. I would have been in full support of Proposition 37 if it were not for one thing. GMO has been and is being used as a fear tactic. The name itself has a negative connotation. Sort of like pinkslime and now frankenfish. The supporters certainly understand that with media complicity in the scare tactics, GMO has become identified with something very dangerous–despite the commonness and lack of proof. However, I think that full disclosure about our food products is very important and I fully support labeling including calorie counts which I think are helpful. I’d rather see this transparency emerge from industry understanding of consumer values rather than through legislation or regulation but that’s another issue.

The fact about GMOs is that we have been genetically involved with food almost since we crawled out of the caves. (See wikipedia again).Selective breeding is intentionally working to get the benefit of selected genes. Yes, the science has changed dramatically, but it is still well established that the newer methods of gene modification have no more dangerous consequences than the older methods, but provide a real promise to meet our growing need for inexpensive food.

3. Consumers should decide. One activists I know of clearly stated that people are too stupid to make decisions about what is in their own interests. I honestly feel this is the rationale behind so much of the regulatory and legislative pressure on food issues. And this thought leaves my blood running cold. I do not want a nanny state, I do not want those in government agencies to be dictating every action I take. I don’t even want Mayor Bloomberg telling me I have to order two sixteen ounce containers rather than one 24 ounce even though I may think he really means good for me. I see far too clear a line between these more or less innocuous decisions and the ones that tell me whether or not I can have children, how many, and how and where to worship and whether or not I can speak my mind on almost any topic. What strikes me as strange and frightening is that so many, particularly those increasing number younger than me, who see no connection at all.

4. Regulatory and political involvement–I guess I’ve already expressed my opinion about that. What concerns me is that the heightening of fear about food, food safety, production methods is used as justification for all kinds of things. I’ve been involved in global food issues where it is quite clear that approval or non-approval of agricultural products based on lab testing of substance levels and setting those levels is a tricky way of controlling imports or exports. It’s not about food safety, but about global trade. I’m also afraid because of the law of unintended consequences which seems to attend almost any effort to more strictly regulate. If people want to do something, want to consume something they will find a way.
We tried temperance and we tried a drug war. Did either end alcohol or drug abuse? No, but the drug wars have certainly resulted in trillions spent on prisons and in Mexico alone, perhaps as many as 100,000 deaths.  These are deaths caused largely by the America demand for illegal drugs.

With all this talk about food safety and the FDA and regulations and new legislation, one thing seems to be continually forgotten. Our food is no doubt safer than ever and it is certainly very affordable. Maybe only the wealthy can afford to buy the high priced, low volume supposedly super-healthy food. But for those who can afford such food to seek to take good, healthy, inexpensive food away from those who do not have that luxury is simply wrong. And that includes the use of scare tactics on things like “frankenfish” and GMO.

Education, not regulation is the key. If the anti-GMOers have a case to make, let them make. Let it be based on strong science, not junk science and not mere fear tactics. In the meantime, let’s eat.