Lance Armstrong & digital power brokering challenges

Negative viral infection of social networks is an increasing issue: digital cliques can calcify into silos inside companies, and sophisticated communicators can be a force for good or bad.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

Lance Armstrong's my new poster child for "any publicity is good publicity," attempting to rebrand himself with exclusive drug scandal admission showcase appearances on Oprah Winfrey's media property (slogan: ""Live your best life" ). In many ways Armstrong is also emblematic of our current culture of relentless digital self promotion by the individual--the perceived importance of constant broadcasts and interactions to an ever expanding social network of "friends". "I publish, therefore I am," to mangle Descartes' famous maxim


It's no accident that these have been the best of times for public relations professionals to move into a new digital realm of "thought leadership," the bizarre term used to describe people with good and interesting ideas, and occasionally, actual practical knowledge to share with others.

Demystifying and promoting the benefits of marketing to the masses via their digital social connections has been a goldmine for a generation of skillful self-publicists--"The medium is the message" applied to amplification of promising ideas, usually aggregated from others who have actually been attempting to achieve success in these areas.

The trade press has dissected Armstrong's appearances, reading his body language and future profitability as a sponsorable celeb product endorser, and not currently seeing a great future for the brazen one.

"This is the start of a personal therapeutic journey for him," said Jane Jordan-Meier, a crisis manager at Media Skills Academy on sponsorship.com, while Mike McCarthy at AdWeek thinks that experts are cool on Armstrong's prospects. "The first crisis-PR move by scandal-plagued athletes is often the confessional interview where they come clean and throw themselves at the mercy of the court of public opinion".

Armstrong has been a tech conference keynoter, telling his story of triumphs over cancer and winning cycling races for years now, selling the LiveStrong charity he founded, and curating his digital personal mystique to stay in the public eye in a good way.

Staying in the public eye is increasingly about the drip, drip, drip of social media--I publish, therefore I am.

In many ways, Armstrong, pre-fall from grace, was everything the average Twitter user aspires to be: breezy personal updates of life triumphs, homilies and "humbled by doing good" messages, interactions with lesser followers, and a burgeoning momentum of more and more friends and connections.

Where this all starts getting peculiar--and more real--is when the oxygen supply of publicity gets choked off and people stop tuning in. Individuals start behaving weirdly in increasingly desperate ways to get attention, including in the court of public opinion--a place more judgmental than the Bible's old testament.

It will be interesting to see if Armstrong's professional public relations alchemists can turn his persona around to become some kind of infamous bad boy personality over time. I think the chances are that he will succeed in having a lucrative perceived value, assuming he can remain a recognizable entity with interesting attributes. Staying in the public eye is increasingly about the drip, drip, drip of social media--I publish, therefore I am.

What does Lance Armstrong have to do with modern business collaboration strategy, my area of expertise, you may well be asking? Simply that we are well into an era of individual self promotion, which can be the opposite polarity to teamwork.

Daniel Pink, another brilliant self promoter, wrote "Free Agent Nation--The Future of Working for Yourself" at the end of the dot com boom (it was published in early 2002), which lionized a glorious future of independent work by "free agents." Free Agent Nation was a good book from a previous pre-digital social networking era where far more people were long-term full time employees. The other side of the "elective free agent" coin today is a game of musical chairs for available freelance work with established companies, an area where our current economy has ratcheted up the pressure, since many large entities are keeping their profit numbers up with cutbacks.

We are arguably now exiting the massively networked social media craze ten years on: Facebook has peaked, Twitter is moving to more of a broadcast-to-fans-by-celebs model in a bid to monetize, and much of the word of mouth marketing promise of exploiting digital conversations and enthusiasms has turned out to be questionable.

For users there is the inevitable "been there, done that" familiarity and lack of novelty around the now ubiquitous digital channels and streams--the shock of the new is long gone. Today, there is far more of an "every person for themselves" mentality around work in the corporate world, and this has deeply pervaded collective working practices.

Knowledge hoarding and acquisition of other people's efforts, along with good old fashioned brown nosing, are staples of the negative side of the rat race in larger companies. Adding external and internal digital social networking elements into this sometimes toxic mix can empower people who are highly skilled political infighters and communicators, and this is often exacerbated by digital cliques--groups of "frenemies" working together.

Many companies have been seduced by the promise of enterprise social networking technologies as a way to break down silos and make information more accessible across the company, but the old adage that culture eats strategy for breakfast doesn't just apply--in some cases, a new layer of digital networking actually exacerbated management problems.

Powerful communicators like Armstrong can seize centralized power very quickly, as we learnt in the 1930's.

The relentless digital self promotion and networking/exposure by individuals like Lance Armstrong is now the learnt behavior of millions of casual social media users, although the perceived value of their "number of followers" currency is shrinking rapidly as the social media soufflé deflates.

Today, we're in a world where many employees across all age ranges are sophisticated digital publishers and networkers, well versed in networking for job context and survival, and with political antenna tuned for personal opportunities and threats.

Imagine Lance Armstrong as a powerful competitive co-worker--it isn't as crazy as it sounds. For some, the oxygen of self promotion is a vital part of their professional success, whether they are playing by the rules or not. As many professional cyclists have pointed out, Armstrong skewed the playing field and destroyed many honest careers with his wholesale use of performance boosting drugs.

We're always hearing the superficial Ra Ra Team community manager enthusiasm attributes of "social" through software vendor marketing messaging, but dealing with change, group thinking, and designing environments where people are encouraged to innovate and work together, takes a great deal of finesse and commitment over time.

Installing technology with the expectation of viral adoption typically doesn't work over time, except in the case of special interests exploring political power vacuums and using the technology as a power foundation to gain advantage over rivals. This is human nature, and as good, tuned-in-to-their-workforce human resources professionals know, it only takes one poisonous personality with the gift of the digital gab to negatively virally infect everyone around them. If, like Lance Armstrong, they can assemble a powerful clique around them, typically guarding private information that gives them unfair advantage, the group quickly calcifies into a business silo that can go rogue.

On a macro scale, the challenge as we move on from the crude first generation of multi-million person-strong digital social networking into more sophisticated subsets, will be to raise awareness of the power of digital cliques, which have significant political ramifications on the world political stage.

Powerful communicators like Armstrong can seize centralized power very quickly, as we learnt in the 1930's. This may sound like a stretch, but the reality is that if digital networks are well tuned, they are extremely powerful, particularly within the confines of the way a company is organized--the challenge is to channel that power to achieve the goals and outcomes desired, and not allow skilled political infighters to shrewdly seize the visibility and momentum to meet their own ends.

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