Rolling Stone And The Bomber Suspect: What Media Coverage Has Missed

I swore I wasn’t going to weigh in on this topic. But longtime online marketing expert Barbara Ling gave me several good reasons to reconsider (one of them being that she offered me an image that didn’t further perpetuate the suspect’s controversial face.)

I’ve known Barbara since the days I used to pitch her as a press authority on Internet recruiting back in the days my agency represented FlipDog (later acquired
by She’s a 17-year “soloprenuer” who, in addition to Internet recruiting, specializes in what she refers to as “in-the-trenches” online marketing via social media. A mother of four, she focuses on demystifying social media for emerging businesses.
Barbara and I share a love of marketing and of entrepreneurs. We have no business relationship together, but as time progresses, perhaps that will change. Barbara pointed out to me that in the fallout over the July 17 Rolling Stone Magazine that unless you’ve been living under a stone, you realize features a photo of the Boston Bombing Suspect Dzhokhar Tsamaev. The consumer world reacted, primarily with outrage. CVS and Walgreens both refused the carry the issue, as Forbes’ Matthew Herper reported last week.
But here’s the surprise Barbara brought to my attention: Within 24 hours, a site emerged with the headline “Boycott Rolling Stone Magazine For Their Latest Cover.” The message on the page: “Rolling Stone announced its new cover today, featuring the Boston Bomber.  This is unacceptable and a slap in the face for those he killed and maimed.” The site garnered more than 100,000 “Likes” in its first 24 hours. That’s the equivalent of 4169 “likes” an hour, 69 “Likes” a minute and a “like” every 6/7 of a second.
So what’s even bigger about this? It’s the very structure of Facebook sharing that makes such a rabid and viral uprising possible and actually fuels its growth. When a Facebook user “Likes” a page, the “Like” generally shows up (unless you’ve active prohibited it) in that individual’s feed, allowing everyone in his or her network to see it as well.
Fueling the viral mania fire even further, many media outlets and Facebook users also “hashtagged” their posts with the cryptic message of #Boycott and #RollingStone, helping to spur even more sharing via Facebook’s new Open Graph Search. This phenomena results in more users and more Facebook viewers being polarized to one side or the other.
Grass roots Facebook campaigns are nothing new. In May, Women, Action and the Media was able to persuade advertisers to pull their ads in protest of “rape joke” pages on Facebook. In the face of the mountain of infuriated users, Facebook re-thought its position and the pages came down.
Once a controversial passion has been ignited on Facebook to this extent it becomes virtually unstoppable, Barbara says, but here is the powerful takeaway she urges small business to note:  The Facebook community can make or break a brand’s appeal. Therefore, businesses must be highly mindful to ensure their social media interactions increase, rather than decreasetheir mindshare in the competitive economy. Even if an offense is inadvertent, a misstep in the public’s eye can have disastrous consequences in the social media-driven economy. (If you’re not convinced, you can just ask Paula Deen.)
Says Barbara, “How this public outcry will affect Rolling Stone Magazine, their advertisers and community remains to be seen. Smart businesses, however, will watch this situation unfold and learn from the reactions.”
Did CVS and Walgreens consider the viral energy of this passion in their decision to boycott the current Rolling Stone magazine? Whether they did or not, every company will have to weigh this phenomena in the balance from now on, whether they like it or not. But even more importantly, what would happen if businesses who recognize the immense power social media holds were to capture that passion and energy and engage it for good?
And, since we’re in a pondering mood, consider this aspect of the story as well, from USA Today: You know how “a picture is worth 1,000 words?” In that sense, the in-your-face cover decision to feature the Boston Bomber suspect actually cost Rolling Stone (and its readers) 1,100 words – the length of the excellent and thought provoking article that has gone by and large unremarked and that thousands of subscribers will never read, thanks to the flap over the cover image and the resulting uproar that has taken over the magazine’s press.
Yet again, social media wields a giant influence that businesses (and publications) should bear in mind much more fully before they make the decision about what they’ll sell into the market or what they’ll post in the press. Thanks to the increasing tendency of passions and messages to go viral, the decisions matter more fully and from a much different vantage point than before.
In light of these facts, what is your business doing to market differently in the evolving social media world? I welcome your thoughts, and Barbara has offered to join with me in responding to the questions you pose.
Thanks again to Barbara Ling for her contributions to this story. In the coming weeks she and I will collaborate on several other stories as well.