How brands can avoid the dreaded ‘Streisand Effect’

Barbra Streisand (and others) offers an important lesson on how to turn a minor incident into a full-blown crisis. Don’t let this happen to your brand.

Only in the Digital Age could the Streisand Effect exist. And a seemingly growing number of instances make this a phenomenon that every communicator must understand.

The Streisand effect is used to describe an instance in which a person or company attempts to suppress a photograph, story, or any piece of information—only serving to exacerbate the problem and bring more unwanted attention. In short, the attempt to suppress becomes bigger news than the information itself. It makes that company look like a big ol’ fuddy duddy spoil sport that doesn’t understand this newfangled Internet thingy.

The nature of social media—with shares and retweets giving information perpetual life—makes the Streisand Effect more ubiquitous than ever. It’s much more common now than it was when it was given its name in 2003.

That’s when Streisand’s lawyers tried to force Kenneth Adelman and to remove a photo of Streisand’s palatial Malibu home that was among a collection of 12,000 photos of the California coastline. The photo had been accessed six times when the lawsuit was filed. After news of the lawsuit went national, the photo was viewed nearly 500,000 times. Adding insult to injury, the lawsuit was thrown out.

How people organically talk about your company or your brand doesn’t make or break your reputation in the Digital Age. Rather, how you respond to the way people talk about your company or brand has a much greater effect on your reputation. It’s harder with today’s unfathomably massive flow of information to direct or control a message. In more cases than not, it’s more effective to embrace the way people are talking about you.

We learned this recently from a politician.

When Hillary Clinton became the subject of a viral meme, Texts From Hillary, she could have railed against it. Photos of the Secretary of State and former first lady wearing sunglasses and texting inspired several captions. They weren’t all flattering, and were seldom politically correct. Clinton could have feigned ignorance or denounced it altogether. Yet when Clinton finally participated, it killed the meme. Texts From Hillary creators Adam Smith and Stacy Lambe spell it out on the now-shuttered Tumblr:

“As far as memes go—it has gone as far as it can go. Is it really possible to top a submission from the Secretary herself? No. But then when you get to text with her in real life—it’s just over. At least for us. But we have no doubt it will live on with all of you on the Internet.”

Had Clinton come out and tried to suppress the site or force them to take it down, the Streisand effect would have taken hold and made the situation far worse.

But not all information online is so easy to turn into a positive. Obviously when you get into the realm of libel and slander, it’s tougher to spin into a positive and legal action can still be warranted. At a certain point, however, you have to determine whether you can stop people from talking about your brand a certain way.

The answer more often than not is going to be no. At this point there are a couple ways you can proceed. We recently dealt with this challenge with one of the brands that I help manage. We saw a consistent amount of negative chatter around what I’ll call a “byproduct” of using this brand. These were our options:

1. Ignore it. We could let people talk about it as they were and pretend like these conversations aren’t happening.

2. Fight it. Whenever someone mentioned this byproduct, we could chime in, reminding them of all the benefits of using our product despite its negative aspects. Had we chosen to do this, we felt like we would come off as the person at the party who gets the joke but has to point out why it’s distasteful in a disapproving fashion.

3. Embrace it. What we ended up doing is creating a social media content stream around this aspect of the product. It’s certainly not the focal point of the social campaign, but we’re not afraid to talk about it and respond to fans that mention it.

Most recently, Labatt experienced the Streisand effect when it tried to persuade a newspaper to remove a photo from its website that showed an accused murderer drinking its product. Twitter users picked up the story and ran with it, creating a dedicated hashtag to deride the brand. Eventually, Labatt abandoned its threat of legal action.

The Streisand effect also reared its head when a Scottish school tried to stop a nine-year-old student from taking photos of her school lunches and blogging (often critically) about them.

On June 14, Martha Payne wrote on her blog, Never Seconds:

“This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today.”

Many of the U.K.’s biggest news organizations, including the BBC, picked up the story. This media pressure was so swift and severe that the Argyll and Butte Council lifted the ban a day after that post.

It shows that no one likes censorship—especially on the Internet. Transparency is the expectation, and when that is challenged the outcome seldom favors those trying to suppress the information. The lesson is that you can no longer hide from the truth. Those with no truth to hide from will be fine. But those who try beware: The Streisand effect looms.

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