The story so far:
Eich recently became CEO of Mozilla.
Yesterday, OkCupid declared that “Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay marriage.”
This got incredible news coverage.
BBC. Reuters. TIME. The Verge. TechCrunch. Lots of people are sharing the aforementioned links all over social media, many of them with comments like “Shame on you, Mozilla” or “Well done, OkCupid!”. If you don’t get a chance to read into the details, the general sense is ‘OkCupid good, Mozilla bad.’
OkCupid certainly didn’t mince their words: “Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.”
Of course, reality is never that black-and-white.
If you dig deeper, you’ll learn that Eich has since published a blogpost detailing his support for gay rights at Mozilla.
There are two ways you could interpret this. One, he’s changed his mind on these matters, or two, he realises that as a CEO he has to at least communicate that he holds these views, and take actions that correspond with those stated views. (My personal guess is that it’s likelier to be latter, because he didn’t actually state anything about changing his own views– just that he’s sorrowful about having caused pain.)
Several Mozilla employees have asked for the CEO to step down. Others have expressed disappointment at his donation, but say they’ll keep working at Mozilla, which has a culture of openness and a mission to build a free, open internet. Mozilla’s blog says that Mozilla Supports LGBT Equality.
So it’s pretty hard to see how Mozilla is ‘seeking to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame and frustration’. It would be more accurate to say that they’re working on building a free, open internet, and their CEO once donated to a perhaps regrettable, prejudiced cause.
Of course, that’s not nearly as compelling a story.
You gotta admit, it’s a stunning PR move for OkCupid.
As the post by re/code elegantly puts it, “OkCupid just ratcheted up its clicktivism game.” Can you imagine what their signup rates must look like now? Tonnes of positive news coverage, and it makes them look really good. Why bother with paid advertising? Just throw a scapegoat under the bus. Preferably someone ‘powerful’ from another company, who’s done something that most people would agree was wrong.
The skillfulness of the play is admirable: Even if you accused OkCupid of being sensationalist, they could apologize and argue that their heart was in the right place. It’s still a net win for them. That’s the power of doing a publicity stunt that’s on-brand.
Remember “All Marketers Are Liars”?
The closing blogpost from Seth Godin’s ‘All Marketers Are Liars’ blog is incredibly illuminating here:
“The truth is elusive. No one knows the whole truth about anything. We certainly don’t know the truth about the things we buy and recommend and use.
What we do know and what we talk about is our story. Our story about why use, recommend or are loyal. Our story about the origin and the impact and the utility.
Marketing is storytelling.
The story of your product, built into your product. The ad might be part of it, the copy might be part of it, but mostly, your product and your service and your people are all part of the story.
Tell it on purpose.”
That is exactly what OkCupid did here, and they did it masterfully. It’s a form of media manipulation. They get away with it because they are in the business of connecting people, so them getting outraged about this (even if it’s secretly a measured PR stunt- we’ll never know for sure!) is justifiable, even charming.
Is it a risky move by OkCupid? Do they stand to lose anything?
A fairly common refrain I’ve been hearing is how brave OkCupid is for making such a bold, ‘sacrificial’ gesture. But I don’t think that’s actually accurate. I don’t think so. Eich– and Mozilla by extension– are easy targets to snipe at. Also, it’s not like Firefox users aren’t allowed to use OkCupid- they’re just one click away from their regular scheduled programming.
The only thing they really stand to lose is the support of people who are militantly anti-LGBT. And those people are diminishing in number and influence, fast. I think the fact that Obama, Starbucks and others have come out in support of LGBT in recent times is a sign. These high-profile individuals don’t take public stances on a whim, they have analysts who survey the ground and inform them when it is advantageous to throw their weight behind a particular cause.
In short, the personal (which became political) has now become profitable. All else held constant, being pro-LGBT is now better for business than being anti-LGBT, and this trend will only continue. Until, of course, it becomes something that isn’t even noteworthy anymore.
If you’re managing a brand, should you hop aboard the pro-LGBT bandwagon, too?
When the question is phrased like that, it instantly looks really distasteful. How could you co-opt something so personal and important to so many people and use it to sell stuff?
But that’s precisely what successful brands do, all the time. They do it by focusing on the fundamental issues. There is an overlap between what is ‘good for business’ and what is ‘socially responsible’, and that’s a very good place to be.
Hopefully, if you’re thinking of mimicking OkCupid, you’re doing it because you truly believe in the importance of equality and diversity. If you want to do a me-too stunt, it had better be tastefully done, or you’ll look really, really cheap. And uncreative.
A much better way of thinking about it would be to focus on the heart of your own brand. What are your brand’s fundamental beliefs? Simply picking a cause because it’s fashionable will look really insincere and probably work against you.
Ultimately, what are we to learn from all of this?
Eich surely never expected his $1000 donation to end up becoming a huge PR campaign for OkCupid, or he’d never have done it. But I think that unpredictability is at the heart of the lesson here.
- The media machine is always hungry for blood. Despite all our rules and civility (“My tweets are my own, not my employers” is the quaintest, cutest manifestation of this), the truth of the matter is that it can all break down in an instant when the outrage card is played. If it bleeds, it leads.
- Public sentiment is a real and powerful force of nature. You can think of the media as a business that’s built to channel this force. In a 1996 interview, Steve Jobs described that the media isn’t conspiring to dumb us down, it’s just giving us what we want. We want blood, so the media gives us blood. The interesting question to ask is, how do you give people what they want… in a way that gets you what you want? Study OkCupid’s moves carefully.
- The public can be deftly, artfully manipulated (to some degree). While the media itself doesn’t have an agenda, PR-savvy folks know how to manipulate it to serve their interests. They know what to focus on, what to play up, what to leave out. The pen is mightier than the sword, even if it writes half-truths, omits facts, etc… nothing comes in the way of a good story. (Corrections can always be appended later, after the damage is done.)
If nothing else, I think that’s something to reflect on. While consumers might not be morons, they are susceptible. Whether you’re working in marketing/PR or not, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “How will my actions be perceived, if and when people learn about them?”
If you’re not deliberate in thinking about these things, it’s likely that someone else is. And they’ll get to set the agenda.
On a less dreary note, perhaps we can all take amusement at OKCupid’s curious misspelling of Internet Explorer:
PS: I’ve tried my best to avoid talking directly about the morality of Eich’s actions, and focused on the media and PR apparatus surrounding the whole event. If you’d like some perspective, I think Christie Koehler and Erin Kissame (both Mozilla employees!) wrote really thoughtful posts, and they’re excellent starting points to really dig into the meat of the matter. The discussions on Hacker News here and here are also worth a read.
PPS: I don’t personally know anybody from Mozilla or OkCupid, but I think both sites are real assets that are doing good things for the world, and I hope all of this can be resolved graciously, in a way that’s somehow a net win for all.