A growing number of companies are recruiting their customers as freelance lobbyists. But companies should be wary of trying to control public debate, writes Charlie Ashford.
If your inbox is anything like mine, it’s probably packed full of campaign emails, each asking you to send a tweet, sign a petition or write to your local representative.
Usually these emails come from well-meaning campaign groups, looking for a show of public support. Whether or not you believe such “slacktivism” has any real-world impact, it’s hard to take much issue with them.
But recently I’ve started receiving a new kind of campaign email – coming not from charities, but from businesses. Here are a few recent headlines:
“Facebook launches email campaign to save Free Basics”
“Aereo asks customers to protest Supreme Court Decision”
“Uber claims ‘common sense victory’ as TfL backs down on regulations”
21st century lobbyists
If you imagine a corporate lobbyist, chances are that you think of somebody straight out of House of Cards, or the 2005 movie Thank You For Smoking – smooth-talking, immaculately dressed, schmoozing their way across Capitol Hill. But a growing number of companies are ditching this old-fashioned image, and instead seeking to turn their customers into freelance lobbyists.
This is a step-up from the type of grassroots campaigning seen from the likes of Ben & Jerry’s and Starbucks. Asking your customers to sign petitions on issues from climate change to the fiscal cliff may be lobbying of a sort, but there’s no immediately obvious link to the bottom line.
What’s new is that certain companies are now asking their customers to lobby against regulations that directly impede the company’s growth. And the surprising thing is, hardly any of those customers seem to mind.
It’s no coincidence that many such companies – Uber, Facebook, Airbnb – originated as Silicon Valley startups. In the tech sector, “disruptive” new business models are often an uncomfortable fit with decades-old legislation. A recent Harvard Business Review article quotes Nick Grossman, who explains the trend:
“New startup delivers a creative and delightful new service which breaks the old rules, ignoring those rules until they have critical mass of happy customers; regulators and incumbents respond by trying to shut down the new innovation; startups and their happy users rain hellfire on the regulators.”
In the past, when companies wanted to leverage grassroots campaigns to further their own interests, they had to do so by disguising their involvement. But what the new lobbyists have in their favour is a community of users who have bought into their product (yay, cheap taxis) and have little attachment to the old, low-tech way of doing things (boo, licensed cabs and unionised drivers). In effect, a willing army of volunteer lobbyists.
Us versus them
Last month, Facebook asked its 125 million Indian users to send pre-written messages to India’s telecom regulator in defence of Facebook’s “Internet.org” initiative. This follows similar messages last year, which encouraged users to contact their local member of the Indian Parliament. “Do you want India to have free basic internet services?” began the message at the top of every user’s News Feed. Who would say no to that?
Internet.org’s critics – who say that Facebook is creating a second-tier ‘internet for poor people’ – didn’t get a look-in. Faced with a more sceptical political audience, Facebook’s message might have tackled the criticism head-on (as indeed CEO Mark Zuckerberg did in a blogpost last year). But when the goal was simply to influence politicians through weight of numbers alone, nuance was unnecessary.
Something similar can be said about Uber’s recent lobbying efforts. In New York, after the city proposed a temporary cap on Uber’s growth, Uber didn’t just send emails. When users signed in to the Uber app, they were offered a new “de Blasio” option, which invited them to “see what happens” if the Mayor’s plans went ahead.
By encouraging its users to act as both lobbyists and brand advocates, Uber may be insulating itself from criticism. Questions over drivers’ pay and rights, passenger safety and aggressive business practices could all effectively be drowned out by the company’s loyal fans.
Join the club
Technology firms are adept at attracting loyal followings of users. More and more companies are now emulating this approach, with everyone from coffee shops to furniture stores cultivating “communities” of devoted customers.
In a sense, recruiting customers as lobbyists is the next logical step. Uber and Facebook are testing the waters, but others will soon follow.
But when you’re relying entirely on the goodwill of your customers, the risk is that the mood will turn sour. Facebook users have started sharing fake slogans asking people to “support an ignorant India”. Meanwhile, the Indian telecoms regulator has hit back at Facebook, accusing it of misleading users by asking them to sign a generic statement of support rather than answering the regulator’s more detailed consultation questions.
Businesses have a rightful role to play in public conversations about regulation. But they need to be wary about trying to control the debate. When Airbnb posted adverts in San Francisco last year, snarkily advising schools and libraries on how to spend its tax payments, the company presumably thought it had residents on its side. The resulting backlash forced it to remove the ads.
How far customers will consent to being used in lobbying is anyone’s guess. But the backlash will surely come. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping a close eye on my inbox.
Charlie Ashford is a Consultant at Corporate Citizenship.