You can get ‘mad cow’ disease from eating Canadian beef. Using cellphones can cause brain cancer. Eating apples that have been sprayed with Alar can give you cancer. Genetically modified ‘Frankenfoods’ will pollute both your body and the environment, and probably give you cancer. Nike exploits sweatshop labour in manufacturing its shoes. SUVs cause global warming. Carbohydrates are bad, but eating plenty of meat, fat, and eggs will help you lose weight. Outsourcing is bad for the economy and workers alike. All politicians are on the take.|
These are all examples of ‘killer memes’ – ideas that appear apparently from nowhere, hijack popular opinion, cause radical changes in the way people live, and disrupt the organizations and lives that are sideswiped by them. ‘Meme’ is a word invented by Oxford professor and biologist Richard Dawkins, and means a thought or idea that is contagious, a sort of thought virus that leads to an epidemic. Some of the memes above are true, and others either half-truths or completely unfounded, but their truth or lack thereof is almost irrelevant, which is why they can be so harmful.
A killer meme can destroy your business or your reputation, and seems, almost by definition, to be unpredictable, like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky. How, then, do you prepare for a meme attack? And what can you do if you’re hit by one?
Let’s start by looking at how killer memes arise. A killer meme is transmitted by modern media – television, radio, and especially the Internet. It’s a kind of electronic rumour that catches on, then spreads like wildfire. For this to happen, a meme must have two fundamental characteristics: it must be sexy and interesting enough to catch people’s attention, and it must sound important enough to be worth considering and repeating. In turn, this means that most killer memes are bad news, at least for someone, because bad news is more likely to be repeated. And it’s my observation that a disproportionate number of killer memes are about health – or more properly, hazards to your health.
For a meme to really catch on, it helps if it can be attributed (correctly or not) to some apparently credible source, preferably someone with ‘Dr.’ in front of their name (such as Dr. Atkins), or emerge from a research study of some kind. Even though we no longer hold scientists in the same god-like esteem we once did, we still think they know more than we do, so if a scientist (or doctor, which isn’t the same thing) says something, hey, it’s probably right. Further, I think a killer meme is more likely to spread explosively if someone can be blamed. The way society has evolved, we love scapegoats, especially if they’re big corporations, like Nike, Monsanto, or a pharmaceutical company, to whom we can attribute all kinds of nasty, greedy motives, like the desire for profit.
The vector of transmission for a killer meme is the desire to believe. When people hear a killer meme, they want to believe that it’s true for some reason, whether it’s to blame someone else (like the owner of an SUV) for a sin we are all committing (generating greenhouse gases by our lifestyles), or that we can get thin by eating fatty foods, or all we have to do to stay healthy is avoid eating certain other foods. Because we want to believe the meme, we pass it on to other people. If we can convince them, it makes us more comfortable in accepting and believing in the meme – it buttresses our own belief, and makes us feel as if we’re right, something we all enjoy.
So the first step in guarding against killer memes is to ask if you or your organization is in a position, or of a nature to be particularly susceptible: are you a big target, and are you doing something novel or innovative that hasn’t been done before, or about which new research is turning up on a regular basis? If you serve the general public, or if your products or services are used by or affect the general public, then you’re vulnerable. Is there anything on the horizon that might be construed - or misconstrued - as bad news? If an American tort lawyer were examining your products or services, looking for some excuse to sue you, what would they likely seize on? Almost any organization of appreciable size can see vulnerability in one or more of these kinds of questions, and hence may be vulnerable to a killer meme.
Based on these characteristics, which organizations are most vulnerable to being harmed by a killer meme? Clearly the industries I’ve already mentioned: the food industry and related groups (farmers, slaughterhouses, seed and fertilizer companies, food processors); pharmaceutical companies; consumer products companies; hospitals, doctors, and health care workers; and politicians and civil servants. And although it is, by definition, impossible to predict who might get sideswiped by a killer meme, it’s possible to project further potential targets, based on the kinds of characteristics I’ve described. These might include: anyone who works with children, from Scout leaders to teachers to social workers; industrial companies that make building products that involve solvents or chemicals, or some other compound that doesn’t occur naturally; and banks, which seem to be me to sitting ducks for the right (or wrong) kinds of memes, as are most organizations in the financial services field (insurance companies, financial advisors, stock brokers, and so on).
Add to this anyone who has benefited from an earlier meme if a backlash against it hits. Hence, those who sell products or services that exploit the interest in the Atkins diet may fall prey to a backlash against the Atkins diet if it happens, especially if they’re seen as exploiting peoples’ fears. Hence, I wouldn’t want to be the maker of the most expensive ‘low-carb’ bread on the market for fear of becoming a target for comedians on late night television.
If you’re hit by a killer meme, what do you do about it? Well, the first and best thing is to have thought about it beforehand. If you’ve thought about potential vulner–abilities, and prepared for them, then you are more likely to respond in a thoughtful manner. This is a little like responding to Really Bad News. The textbook example of dealing with Really Bad News is how Johnson & Johnson dealt with the situation when someone in Chicago contaminated bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol, lacing them with cyanide in 1982. J&J made an immediate public announcement about the problem, warned the general public not to buy any Tylenol product, and recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules. It cost them more than US$100 million, but it also preserved their brand integrity, protected their customers from harm, and maintained their goodwill with the public.
Likewise, if you sell carbohydrates, and your sales plummeted because of the ‘carbs are bad’ killer meme, you can’t (a) pretend it isn’t happening; (b) pretend it doesn’t affect the consumers of your products; or (c) complain that this is ridiculous, because by doing so you are implicitly calling your customers stupid. You have to combat this meme by first acknowledging it as a concern, especially if there is at least some truth in it. Then, if you can, introduce more information. Don’t try to just shoot down the meme as unfounded, especially if there’s some grain of truth in it; that’s unlikely to work. Instead give people additional information so they can make a second decision that counteracts the first. Hence, you might say something like, ‘While it’s true that a diet that restricts carbohydrates may be a useful way to lose weight, research studies show that such restricted diets can contribute to health problems because of the loss of B vitamins and fiber. Accordingly, what some health authorities suggest is …’ And then come up with a solution that appears to support the killer meme (and hence confirms the intelligence of the customer) while offering a more informed style of behaviour. But before you open your mouth, make sure that you are acting in the best interests of the customer first, and your own interests second. In a world where privacy is rapidly disappearing, no organization should hold any illusions about deceiving the public in the long run. Honesty is now enforceably the best policy.
Next, you need to be ahead of the curve with your reaction, not desperately running along behind with a ‘me too!’ response. This is why it helps to have thought through what you’re going to do if you are hit by a killer meme. The bread companies that coopted the ‘carbs are bad’ meme by coming out with low carb breads were attempting to roll with the punch. In their shoes, I might have been tempted to highlight the positive values of carbohydrates in their low-carb breads as well as the simple low-carb values, such as the important natural fiber and vitamin B contents.
Throughout the process of bad news management, the standard you must adhere to is protecting the customer or end user. And you have to be sincere about it, not just pay it lip service. Remember that you will generally be considered to be guilty until proven innocent, so don’t try to be mealy mouthed. Be forthright, even when it hurts. Remember that J&J swallowed $100 million in recalled products rather than risk their customers’ health, or the reputation of their brand name. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything about the meme, or come forward with a Communist-style confession of guilt. You want to deal with the issue honestly, honourably, and forthrightly, and establish yourself as a good guy.
The killer meme is one example where wild card scenario planning can be especially valuable. A wild card is a low probability event that has dramatic consequences if it happens. Remarkably, you can plan for wild cards, effectively reverse engineering the future. I describe this in more detail in chapter 13 of Who Owns Tomorrow? (Viking Canada, Toronto: 2003), along with other planning techniques. And dealing with bad news is described in in more detail in chapter 10.
But the first, and most important step in dealing with killer memes is to accept that they could happen to you. Once you’ve done that, you can prepare contingency plans for your defense.
© Copyright, IF Research, April 2004.
by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.