Digging the community’s passion for codes

It’s hard to read Kevin Rose’s complete capitulation to the digg mob as anything but the first chink in the armor of social news.

Let’s back up and go over what happened. A story appeared on digg that contained code that would allow people to break the encryption on HD-DVDs, something the owners of that particular bit of intellectual property didn’t take kindly to. That led them to send a cease-and-desist order to Digg, which the site complied with by taking down the item in question.

That’s when things got out of hand.

People responded by flooding the site with items containing the code, effectively telling everyone else to go take a hike – they’ll do what they like. Kevin Rose then decided it wasn’t worth honking off the entire community and said they’ll fight the C&D, even if it leads to the eventual downfall of digg.

It’s tempting to read Rose’s position as brave, like he’s standing up to the big bad man. But to me it seems more like a “please, please don’t hurt me angry mob” position he’s assuming. He knows that the future of digg lies in its user base and, putting his finger to the wind, he changed course based on the prevailing attitude.

What digg went through yesterday is the same kind of thing any company has to be prepared for: a crisis. If you make lawnmowers you need to be prepared for a rash of accidents and a recall. If you make bike locks you need to be prepared if someone posts an easy how-to on picking those supposedly tamper-proof locks. And if you run a social news site you need to be prepared for when the community you rely on to decide what’s noteworthy picks something that isn’t going to be popular with the subject of the story. This needs to be right there in the crisis communications playbook that every company should have handy.

When in a crisis a company should have one strong and solid voice speaking for it. Having a “bad cop/good cop” dynamic going, as in this case, only serves to confuse the audience and make final decisions look like they’re not motivated by strong principles but by calculation.

Look at Google’s “…and the horse you came in on” response to Viacom. While Google did take down Viacom videos from YouTube, something it did in good faith, it has said that Viacom’s suit alleging copyright violation has no merit. It would have been easy for Google to follow the conventional wisdom and engage Viacom in negotiations, something many felt the suit was designed to trigger. Instead it has picked up its trident (“Brick killed a guy. Did you throw a trident?”) and said it will meet Viacom on the field of battle. There wasn’t a news conference at 10AM saying they wouldn’t fight the lawsuit followed by on at 2PM with Eric Schmidt saying the community had spoken and they would fight it. They got their ducks in order and decided on a path.

Effective public relations should lead to less – not more – confusion among the public and a company’s stakeholders. Even if it takes a little while longer to make sure everyone’s singing the same song it’s worth it since it makes the company look a little less like they’re bumbling along.

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