The Government of Canada is looking for social media help in its fight for global public opinion over the annual seal hunt. A post ten days ago on the government’s contract tendering site MERX, said the government is looking for help countering “frequently incorrect or disingenuous” social media information relating to the seal hunt.
In recent months, animal welfare groups such as PETA have stepped up their campaign against the hunt, using a variety of social media platforms and even targeting the Vancouver Winter Olympic games brand. The government now seems to want to join the conversation and correct the record.
But for brands and organizations alike, social media engagement is not without risks. A poorly timed, conceived or executed campaign can blow holes in the best corporate storyline. Which leads us to question the timing and thinking behind the Government of Canada’s strategy.
An article in this weekend’s Globe and Mail newspaper points out that the battle for international public opinion around the seal hunt appears all but lost. Sales of seal products fell in 2009 to about $ 1 million from a 2006 high of about $ 105 million, and the decision earlier this year by the European Union to ban the import of seal products has effectively shut down Canada’s largest remaining market.
This begs the question whether this tardy social media foray by the Canadian government has more to do with domestic optics than changing international public opinion. But if that is the case, government communications planners should be wary of the impact a sputtering social media effort could have on their ability to sustain a positive storyline around the seal hunt even domestically.
By engaging in the social media sphere, the federal government hopes to set the record straight. This is a legitimate communications and issue management objective. Unfortunately, on this issue, the government starts well behind the eight ball.
Any content that it contributes to the conversation will be viewed by many in existing communities with a degree of skepticism, and its late entry in the discussion means that it has to contend with opinions that are well entrenched. But perhaps the most difficult task for the government will be finding its footing in a debate that has mostly been dominated by emotional appeals and inflammatory images. How do you counter the power of a picture of a harp seal being bludgeoned to death? Not through a rational discussion of a humane seal “harvest”.
The challenge for the government will be to mobilize and empower an independent community of interest around this issue. It needs independent voices to echo its own. If it tries to elbow its way into the conversation, it risks further alienating the communities that have already coalesced around this issue. And if it fails to enlist and engage a meaningful domestic community in support of the issue, it risks highlighting disinterest and potential domestic hostility to the hunt.
Last week I said in my blog that the first essential step in social media engagement is listening. The federal government may want to spend a little more time listening to the conversations to determine if there are any credible ones in support of the hunt. If there aren’t any, or there are too few to meaningfully engage, it may want to reconsider its approach or risk seeing its own storyline unravel.