Last Sunday was National Women’s Day in my home country, South Africa. The public holiday celebrates an anti-apartheid women’s march which took place on 9 August 1956. It was a key moment in South African history, and one that inspired women through the remaining decades of the struggle against apartheid. As a public holiday today it forms part of what is dubbed “women’s month”.
Like any similar celebration, from Christmas to Valentine’s Day, companies attempt to tie in their activities and messaging to match the themes of the day.
Last week, a single tweet from pen manufacturer, BIC, caused a global uproar and social media storm. BIC posted a picture on their Twitter account with the following words: Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, work like a boss (see the image here). The social media world lit up with indignation, and a storm ensued.
My friend, ex-colleague and social media expert, Mike Stopforth has possibly the best analysis of the issue here. Mike argues that the margin of error in social media is very, very small, but that we must remember that behind every social media gaff are real people just trying to do their best. He makes a plea for us to think deeper about how we engage with social media, and especially how we engage with the producers of content of social media.
Mike says: “I don’t think we’ve quite yet understood the astonishing power – good and bad – that being published on the Internet really holds for ordinary people. I don’t think we fully appreciate the potential butterfly effect of our published opinions. I don’t think we always consider the blurred lines between the brands we love and hate, and the real human beings behind them.”
He’s right. But we also need to consider one additional thing I think Mike has overlooked.

Social media shines a massive big spotlight on you. To mix my metaphors, there you are swimming around in your little fishbowl, and suddenly the glaring lights of a hundred spotlights illuminate every nanometre of your environment. You’re laid bare. It’s ultimate transparency.
I recognise it’s possible that often the glare of these spotlights shining into our small world can see something that’s not really there. Statements written in shorthand, often off the top of one’s head and not proof-read, can be misunderstood. Or they can just be badly written, and say something that was never intended.
BIC for her pensBut most of the time, these spotlights illuminate and magnify and highlight things that actually ARE there. Take the BIC case from last week. This is not the first time that BIC have made a major blunder in the gender arena. In 2012, we highlighted their idiotic “Pens for Her” campaign on this blog. One mistake when engaging your female audience is forgivable (sort of) as a blunder. Two mistakes begins to become a pattern and points to something that might be more than an accident. I don’t know BIC. I don’t know anyone who works at BIC. According to their annual report, 3 out of their 10 directors are women, but only 2 out of their 11 executive leaders are women (and predictably, one of these is their HR manager). I don’t know their culture, but would it surprise anyone to discover that it is male-dominated and not very women-friendly? Three strikes and you’re out, BIC. And now, everyone is watching!
Social media is a paradox. At one level it allows you to create a persona and manage what other people see of you. We all know that our old school friends’ lives are not nearly as wonderful as their Facebook profiles make out. On the one hand, then, social media allows us to fabricate reality. Yet, on the other hand, it is the ultimate transparency tool. Nothing can really be hidden, and social media exposes – often brutally – actual reality from time to time. For those in the public eye – and this includes companies and brands – it therefore can be like playing with a live hand grenade.
When the spotlight is turned on you, what will it expose? If there’s an undercurrent at your company, this will come out. If there are things said behind closed doors, or whispered in corridors, or joked about at management meetings, these too will ultimately come out. There’s no place to hide in this digital world.
So, whether it is in producing the content that makes up our digital world, or in how you respond to it (or how you respond to the responses to it), we’d all do well to remember Mike’s main point: “freedom of speech means one thing when you are writing down your thoughts on a pen and paper, sleeping on it, and mailing it to someone the next day. But social media has obliterated any barrier to publishing, and with it, often the necessary thought and deliberation required to form a compelling argument. The pen is mightier than the sword, and the internet sure as hell is mightier than the pen. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of responsibility for what you say.”

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