Through the looking glass

My grandparents were Norwegian immigrants who left their homes because they were poor and had little hope of improving their lives. My mother spent many years working as a servant in the homes of wealthy Twin Cities’ business people. My father worked for others much of his life and eventually owned and operated his own small farm. I have worked for others and myself all my adult life. I am part of the working class. I can only imagine what the lives of the rich and famous are like. That’s why I sometimes read publications like “Forbes.” There are times, however, that while reading it I feel like Alice peering through the looking glass at a world of Mad Hatters.

Recently, “Forbes” contributor David Kirkpatrick posted a column warning corporate executives that business would be the next to experience uprisings like those seen in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the world. Dictatorships have been toppled by Facebook-posting, Twitter-tweeting, cell phone-texting revolutionaries. Social media has been a tool for change unlike anything the world has experienced in the past.

Kirkpatrick quotes Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, a company that specializes in social media marketing, “The elites—or managers in companies—no longer control the conversation. This is how insurrections start. This isn’t just about Arab spring. This is about corporate spring.”
Kirkpatrick goes on to say, “In this new world of business, companies and leaders will have to show authenticity, fairness, transparency and good faith. If they don’t, customers and employees may come to distrust them, to potentially disastrous effect.” Authenticity, fairness and good faith in business dealings is the “new” climate?  People “may” come to distrust business? Does this mean the old climate was one of deceit, unfairness and cheating? Do the readers of “Forbes” really believe the average American was unaware of these attitudes towards business ethics? Why do they think corporate executives are among the most distrusted people in the country? It would seem that corporate executives may have been fooling themselves if they thought no one was noticing that what they said were their motives did not coincide with their corporate behavior.
But Kirkpatrick is not saying, “Do it because it is the right thing to do.” He’s saying, do it because you can’t get away with doing it the old way any more. You’ve been caught. The people you have been exploiting and cheating, whether they were your customers or your employees, can now communicate your misdeeds faster than you can cover them up. People have the power of information.
Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the many others available make it possible for disgruntled customers and employees to talk to one another. They have made it possible to overthrow dictators who have held onto power for decades. It is possible to stifle one or two or even a hundred complaints. It was possible, in the past, to keep revolutionaries from communicating with each other. It does not seem to be possible, however, to stop a story that goes viral on the internet. Look at the myths that regularly circulate through emails years after they have been debunked.

The difficulty of knowing what is true has not become any easier.  How can I know that a story has being planted by a corporate public relations department? How do we know that information is not being spread by a disgruntled employee who got fired for not doing his job? How can we know if a story about a fly in someone’s can of soup is real or if it was planted by the soup company’s competitors? What if this media is falsely used against my business? Like most swords, this one has a double edge and cuts both ways.

Kirkpatrick is right. Information is power. Information about companies and people that has been kept hidden and in files labelled “confidential” and “top secret” is secret no longer. Access to those files has allowed us to see through the looking glass a little more brightly. Unfortunately, the same technology can also be used to distort what we see. If businesses adopt a code of ethics only because they have lost the ability to cheat, lie and deceive, the changes will be an illusion.

If ethical behavior is simply a new marketing standard, is it really ethical?

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Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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