What do Susan Boyle and swine flu have in common? A couple of things, as it turns out. First, chances are that until a couple of weeks ago, you'd never heard of either, yet now they're topping lists of "most searched for" on search engines the world over, living embodiments of the speed at which information—both good and bad—can travel in this day and age. And it's not just hype or descriptions of the two that are reaching round the Earth at record-breaking speed—every day, more and more countries on the world map are turning red on news stations tracking the spread of known cases of the H1N1 virus (to give it its proper title). At this rate, it won't be long before it's physically covered as much ground as that now-famous 7-minute video did virtually.
Clearly, both cases demonstrate that we're living in a world in which reputations can be made or broken in an instant, but there's more to them than that. At heart, what makes both cases so intriguing—or frightening—is precisely that they've catapulted unknown phenomena onto the global stage so quickly—and for zero cost. While marketing managers and PR types may look at that and start rubbing their hands together at the possibilities, it's worth noting that the upside doesn't come easily. The swine flu case, in fact, is ample evidence of the old mantra that bad news travels fast—faster, in fact, than the virus itself, as witnessed by the panic even in countries that haven't been exposed to it as yet. (See Egypt's decision to slaughter its entire pig population despite no known cases of the disease, or any link between H1N1 and the consumption of pork products).
In recent years, many companies and leaders have tried—and continue trying—to figure out the magic combination for driving ever more business from the global realm, and jump on any new tool that comes along to help promote themselves and their businesses. Thus, firms around the world are grappling with maximizing their exposure through Twitter and Facebook, even as the previous great hope fades into obscurity (remember Second Life?).
What's truly astonishing about both the Susan Boyle and the swine flu cases is precisely what sets them apart from everyone else trying to get visibility and fame in this day and age: they didn't have to try. Both just existed long enough to garner the attention they deserved, with the element of surprise—and not a little media hype—proving to be key elements. I can't help but feel that there's a key lesson in there somewhere: that the days of companies maintaining control of their own image in the public eye are slipping into oblivion—bad news for established companies that rely on that ability, maybe, but good for upstart competitors that can harness the new tools, and also for those interested in concepts such as corporate responsibility.
As the spread of information becomes ever faster and easier, with even rumor spreading like wildfire, the opportunities for companies to gain recognition for their feats is right up there with Susan Boyle's chance to become a star—all it takes is being in the right place at the right time, or a well-targeted media campaign. The flip side of that, however, is that news of unethical or irresponsible behavior is likely to achieve pandemic status just as fast—ask any recently-deposed Wall Street CEO. The chances of companies being able to control their image, then, is coming to depend less and less on what they say (or manage to hide) as it is on what they do—be it debuting a hot new product, or awarding enormous bonuses to execs as the economy crumbles.
In light of all of that, perhaps the common theme linking the two cases is what they can teach us about how information travels in this day and age. Or, to put it another way, it's the difference between mastering viral networks and contracting a virus. The former, in terms of gaining exposure, can be a company's best friend; the latter, in the form of bad news or loss of reputation, can kill a business or career stone dead. A useful question, then, as firms survey the ever-expanding world of information flow, open borders and shifting media formats: what's the next big thing to emerge about your firm most likely to resemble—Susan Boyle or swine flu?
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