Word of mouth and the “Arab Spring”

In the dynamic and exciting and sometimes over-hyped world of social media there is a real risk of forgetting some of the basics of communication.

And when it comes to managing issues and causes, word of mouth may be the great neglected option.

A BBC documentary in the UK this month* questions whether some commentators may be over-interpreting the role of the social media in the “Arab Spring.” The programme said that while internet access is very widespread in Tunisia, in Egypt it may be as low as 20%. As a result activists turned to word of mouth – via Cairo’s swarms of taxi drivers – to spread the message.

In the programme, Waleed Rashed explained:  “Here in Cairo, taxi drivers love to talk to people, so we said to ourselves, how can we take advantage of that?  The idea was that if we spoke directly, face to face with the taxi driver, he might start arguing and debating with us and this would not be very useful  …  But if I speak with someone from my movement, using the phone, in front of the taxi driver, he will feel he has overheard a secret, and that will create some intrigue. Then the taxi driver is bound to pass on what I’ve said to others.”

This aligns with a recent US study which found that, despite the growing popularity of social media as a means of engaging with causes, nearly two thirds of Americans (62%) say being told in person is the way they typically want to be informed of causes and social issues in which others want them to be involved. Even among generation Y (18-29) and generation X (30-45) – who are more likely than older generations to reporting being sent messages or invitations via social media or text messaging – over  half (56% and 59% respectively) reported a preference for face to face engagement.

Moreover the study (by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Public Relations) identified that social media continues to remain relatively low on the list of ways Americans – younger generations included – typically support causes. While Generation Y is more likely than older generations to make use of promotional social media tools (e.g. blogs, icons on social profiles, and cause groups) these still rank below more historically prominent types of engagement, such as donating, talking to others about social issues, volunteering and signing a petition. The study also found that 7 out of ten respondents across all ages were concerned about the potential for online cause overload and that emails about causes sometimes seem like spam.

For people managing and responding to issues the lesson would seem to be clear.  Recognise and acknowledge the reach and potential of social media.  But don’t ignore the proven power of good, old fashioned word of mouth.

*“How Facebook has changed the world: The Arab Spring” (BBC, 5 September 2011)

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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