With the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation backing off of its decision to rescind funding from Planned Parenthood and the halting of SOPA last month, 2012 is turning out to be the year of the virtual protester. After Komen made its announcement, a bunch of blog posts, tweets, and hacks helped push the cancer awareness organization to revise its position. Before social media evangelists celebrate another victory, it's worth noting that this isn't just the result of the new Internet-empowered class, but also an indication that entrenched public relations pros are scrambling to manage e a new medium and a news cycle that moves faster than ever before.
Komen knew its decision to defund breast cancer examinations for Planned Parenthood would cause a public relations stir, as the internal documents The Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg posted this morning reveled. Yet its PR team was unprepared for the type of push-back that ensued. In those memos, the foundation outlined ways employees should answer possible questions it might face in light of the move, but nowhere in there does it mention how to handle a social media onslaught, revealing just how little their experts know about how much the terrain has changed.
It's incidents like this that embolden online denizens to kick off more Internet protests. (It's worth nothing that when we say Internet protest, we mean a actions that occurs online, which is not to be confused with protests that involve the Internet, like the Arab Spring.) Take the Web's weeks-long offensive against SOPA. Surely it wasn't that small in-person protest we heard about that shamed Motion Picture Association of America leader Chris Dodd. Rather, it was Dodd's inability to handle the constant scrutiny and churning of his statements online that cost him the bill. That's not even mentioning the involvement of big websites like Wikipedia and Google, both of which blacked themselves out, helping to prompt the bill's tabling.
The year of the virtual protest has only just begun. We can see the Internet push-back followed by corporate fumbling everywhere, from Verizon Wireless' and Bank of America's reversals on new fees to the Kayak and Lowe's All American Muslim controversy. (Those later two happening at the tail end of 2011.) As the year goes on, we're sure to see more examples emerge. And as the Internet landscape keeps changing every day, we don't expect the PR establishment to catch up anytime soon.