Stevie is an independent jewelry artist who works and lives in Chicago. On May 25, she discovered that Urban Outfitters was selling a necklace that resembled her “I Heart NY” and by the very same name. Stevie posted the article on her Tumblr account.
The article was picked up Gayla Trail who posted a link to her Facebook page and was discovered by Amber Karnes, who tweeted about the story. The rest, as they say, is history repeating itself -- soon, the topic started trending on Twitter all over the world.
Few did the research to find out more before spreading the links. Helen Killer did on May 27, and what she found out will surprise you. It brings into question what is happening in social networks with content creators as well.
Here's why Stevie's story spread the way it did.
Social networks have given people the ability to see what is going on miles and miles away from home. Having a profile on Twitter, or Facebook, means being able to comment and talk back -- to take action, and help spread a story. The social network and search engines play their part in making it visible.
Just like for many other communications that precipitated crises for organizations and governments, the catalyst was someone with very modest follower/friend counts online.
Certainly, not the people those businesses and entities would have been monitoring for signs of trouble, or looking to reach out to in an "influencer" program. Was this a special case?
As I shared during our panel conversation on how to measure influence last week at Mesh, it was not. It is every communicator's monster in the closet moment. Yet, it shouldn't be a case of "damned if you do; damned if you don't" -- the truth, or a story people are feeling strongly about, has already come out for heaven's sake.
With every new crisis situation in social networks it's becoming clear that the sooner the organization does something, the better off in the long term. Reputation management by silence can become quite expensive quickly.
Even as it could be a "tempest in a teacup" in the short term, you've got to show up for good and for bad, especially if your business is active in social networks. Set the record straight, apologize when warranted, communicate your plan to fix the problem as needed.
In the age of knowledge flows, drawing the bridge is not going to work so well anymore.
What is the matter?
Conversations about influence regularly lead to debating who is influential.
Keeping score on a few people leaves out the power of tribes -- those 1,000 true fans, as defined by Kevin Kelly and discussed further by Seth Godin. Those are the people who will buy (and attribute, thus protect) everything you produce.
Stevie belongs to the craft artists tribe -- they all identify with each other on the basis of their art. What trumps who. Hurt one of us, and you hurt us all, which means we will help get the word out. Once the news spreads beyond the tribe, it reaches mainstream human based upon the David vs. Goliath archetype.
The organization that finds itself on the receiving end of this wave of support against it, has its own what to attend to. As in what it is going to say and do become critical to how it will be perceived moving forward.
I also know from experience that often employees set up Google Alerts on several keywords, certainly on the company name. If you have a sales team, they are fore and center in this practice. When they see the organization not doing anything, they do take action in their circles.
Which may compound the issue.
There are no small circles in an interconnected world. It isn't about the circles at all. It's about the points of connection -- and the object of attention. What goes around comes around has taken a whole new meaning with circles of friends connected online.
Being more connected means people have the opportunity to hear about and see things they might not otherwise learn or find out as news. While who we are drives our activity in social networks -- and in life -- we choose to act based upon a what.
Issue, cause, as in the story and one of the key take aways in Karnes' post, the what is the object and then subject of our attention. We look at who did the spreading, if at all, just to confirm that they are legitimate.
In the case of a friend, we know; in the case of a weaker connection, we may check them out -- their authority, who is connected to them. Online tools help us see that. By the time the organization realizes what is happening, it doesn't matter who, the ripple effect has overtaken follower counts.
3 reasons why what is more important than who
Which is why what matters a great deal more than who when it comes to influencing action. The three main triggers are:
- a story that resonates -- emotional triggers are very powerful
- the ability to spread it -- the connections in social networks make it super easy
- doing something meaningful -- to feel part of something greater than self
I was sorry to learn about the incident for all involved, including Urban Outfitters. Surely there was a way to work with the artist in the production of the necklace. Why not support artists and craftspeople? Should customer- and artist-driven innovation be free?
However, this line of thinking assumes a direct correlation between Stevie and the copying. What if that is not exactly the case? Helen Killer casts doubts on this version of the story.
Who matters, of course. All the people involved in spreading the story matter. As always, the answer is not a straight line.
(We'll tackle who should be on your outreach program Thursday.)
Who has influence now?
Had you seen the tweets about this story? Since I was attending Mesh, I was very focused on the live interactions for a few days and only saw the story Friday. Would you have acted differently had it happened to you?
If you read the comments to Amber's post, you will find out that Stevie had used the design of another artist, Sudlow, for the necklace. @grabbeth Michael from London also adds some perspective to how Urban Outfitters could have sourced the product:
Whilst in this case due to the usage of the same name and copying of text, it would be very difficult for UO to argue innocence, I think the reality in many cases is that a foreign manufacturer may have seen the designs and decided to replicate in bulk. Subsequently, a buyer for UO saw the designs, and bought them.
Indeed, that is a possibility as well. Which is why modern communicators need to apply the principles of risk communication to their responses in social.
Even if you know nothing of Urban Outfitters, the comment thread is bubbling up similar situations with other designers, which doesn't cast them in a good light. And the retail company does work with artists. Which is one on the positive end of things.
The more of a reason to respond with more than "we're investigating" rather quickly and clarify the company's philosophy and actions.
Social networks and digital tools do empower individuals to speak up and spread news. The power is still with the organization to do something about it and go through the 1-2-3 of whats in reverse order to restore faith in their business by fixing the issue at the root.
Will hundreds of people boycott Urban Outfitters now that we know this? Ironically, the lack of further action by the outraged community returns the influence earned with the attention to the issue back to the organization not taking action.
The lesson: A connected and unorganized community loses power where it matters the most -- results and change.
I'm thinking this is a good opportunity for Urban Outfitters to set the record straight on its business practices -- and change them as/if needed. Use this incident and the fact that it has attracted attention to address the ongoing conversation about its products.
Call it an incentive to do better. What would you do if you were in their position?