A few weeks ago, we saw a drastic u-turn by a major environmental nonprofit organization, as publicity over a partnership they entered into really touched a nerve among the green community. The National Wildlife Federation, which states its mission as “working to inspire Americans to protect wildlife for our children’s future,” had entered a partnership with Scotts MiracleGro and indirectly with Monsanto, which owns Scotts most popular product, Roundup Weed Killer.
The Background Story
When news of this pending partnership between NWF and Scotts first broke last year, it was pretty much ignored by environmentalists and wildlife fanatics alike. But on January 18th 2012, NWF formally announced the partnership on their website, saying “The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and ScottsMiracle-Gro are announcing a new partnership to advance NWF’s nationwide Be Out There initiative to connect children with nature. As the national presenting sponsor, ScottsMiracle-Gro will enhance NWF’s programs to create green spaces and attract wildlife to backyards and communities across the country.” The story had been released, but this time it was not going to be ignored by those of us concerned about environmental issues.
Twitter lit up like wildfire, with Tweets and Retweets about the odd partnership being published at an amazing pace. Millions of Twitter users saw someone in their stream either initiate or RT the story, and the social media folks at NWF couldn’t keep up with the onslaught. Concerned greenies took to Facebook, where their own walls and that of NWF were filled with admonishments and disbelief that an environmental organization could possibly be partnering with a company known for making pesticides. A petition to encourage NWF to end the partnership was started, and in days it had hundreds of signatures. (The petition is still live and has nearly 600 signatures) News of this business arrangement had gone viral, and the pressure was mounting on NWF to do something, anything, to stop the negative publicity being hurled around the internet.
Then the straw showed up to break the camel’s back.
As news broke about Scotts pleading guilty to charges that it had sold over 70 million units of tainted bird seed between 2005 and 2008, the social media storm was no longer just about a bad partnership. Now it was turning into something much more, as rumors started floating around about Scotts wanting a partnership with NWF to try to greenwash the legal case and buy some good publicity at just the right moment. Did National Wildlife Federation know about this case? Did they know this news was about to break and partner with Scotts anyway? How much money was going to change hands in this partnership? Who had the most to gain from this agreement, Scotts or NWF?
We’ll probably never know, because on January 29th, just 11 short days after it was announced, NWF released a statement saying that they were ending the partnership. “NWF and Scotts will work together to end the partnership in a friendly and mutually beneficial way,” it read. That was the best result that concerned parties could have wished for, and it actually happened. And it wouldn’t have done so without the power of social media.
The only reason this story got any attention is because social media – Twitter, Facebook, Google +, various bookmarking services – put it in front of millions of eyeballs that otherwise never would have heard about it at all. The news would have stayed in a small circle of do-gooders, concerned with the everyday activity of trying to keep the planet healthy. They would have discussed it amongst themselves, written a few letters, and then moved on to the next project. Chances are, NWF and Scotts would have kept this mutually beneficial relationship in play, albeit maybe on the down-low. But they would have kept it alive. The power of social media, however, made that impossible this time around. Social media has changed the game, so to speak, in that both positive and negative press can now be placed in front of millions of people within just minutes or hours. Companies no longer have the option of ignoring the masses, because the longer they wait to respond the worse the situation will get.
National Wildlife Federation may never admit that they ended this partnership because of the negative press they were getting all over social (and mainstream) media; but I believe it played a strong role. And for that we can be thankful. As environmentalists, we need to spread the word about issues important to us, and to encourage others to join us in our pursuit of making sure organizations and corporations do the right thing for our world. Social media has the power to do that, as this example clearly shows. Don’t ever think you are too small to make a difference; together we may just be able to move mountains.
So, what do you think? Does social media have the power to bring about big change? Is there really power by numbers?
This post was written by David.