Big Brother meets Little Sister on

Photo courtesy of Morguefile user krosseel

Photo courtesy of Morguefile user krosseel

If you think of Big Business in Big Brother terms – monitoring your buying habits and paying companies to design stealth marketing platforms – then may well remind you of Little Sister – the tattletale who could rain swift judgment down on your head mid-mischief. The online petition portal is being credited with affecting serious change in the world, which is great if you’re a concerned consumer or a wrongly convicted prisoner, but not so thrilling if you’re responsible for a product brand or a court of public opinion.

For example, in October, 2013, a petition with more than 348,000 signatures was posted on asking Kraft to take artificial food dyes out of its macaroni and cheese products. In November, the food giant responded with an announcement that it would eliminate artificial yellow food dyes out of its boxed, character-based shaped varieties of macaroni and cheese starting in 2014. Recently, it also removed sorbic acid from its Kraft Singles cheese line, a result of five years of testing to replace the artificial preservative and yet maintain flavor and shelf life.

More recently, the world justice site garnered petitions to have Subway remove azodicarbonamide, a dough conditioner, from its bread. The sandwich chain said it had begun the process to eliminate the additive (one approved by the Food and Drug Administration), before petitions urged the change, but if you have to acknowledge the site, then the site matters. Undoubtedly there was some urgency involved due to the exponentially growing number of signatures appearing on the petition.

Corporate food industry giants aren’t the only ones being challenged on the site, which has inspired more than 64 million people to sign petitions. There are causes listed for a growing number of categories including criminal justice, gay rights, women, technology, immigration and others. If food additives don’t bother you, you can sign on to open an investigation into judging decisions of women’s figure skating, or to protect wildlife by having Yoplait remove the inside flange from its containers.

John Oberg filed a petition when his mother’s hospital said her insurance would no longer cover her chemotherapy treatment. In response, he gained more than 187,000 signatures and, in direct response to that, mother Karen’s pending coverage has now been authorized. He wrote, in a follow-up for, “While I’m still really confused on why the hospital and insurance company couldn’t work this out without the pressure of this petition, I am feeling good about continued coverage! It’s been an emotional few weeks, but it’s amazing to feel this love. Thank you everyone. I could kiss you all!”

Likewise, a mother petitioned Governor Rick Scott of Florida to commute a 25-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for her son, Michael Giles. The young man spent six years in the USAF and then responded to an unprovoked attack in a nightclub by shooting the attacker in the leg in self-defense. In Florida, that nonetheless carries a mandatory sentence which even the judge said was “overly harsh based on the facts of this case.”

I electronically signed that petition and the site then asked why it mattered to me. I responded that I also have a daughter who served in the USAF as a military police officer (she’s now a Chicago cop) and her training became almost instinctual. I would reason that shooting someone in the leg who is admittedly attacking with the intention to do serious harm to you — then stopping after firing a single shot –shows a trained response and control, not a shot fired in passion to further provoke the situation. When a law is black-and-white while the circumstances are grey, the Governor should have the option of providing checks and balances, as intended by Florida law.

The site fascinates me, but it is a little daunting how much brand damage could be done with a single entry, and I wonder how the user-fed site vets the petitions. Essentially you use a simple template to create a petition, review your entry and hit “publish”, and then advertise it on your own media channels like Facebook to garner signatures. Are trained editors previewing petitions so that a fired employee can’t exact revenge by circulating a bogus petition to stop a bogus corporate wrong? I don’t know, nor is an explanation offered on the site.

What I do know is that business and government, now more than ever, operate in a glass bubble, and every thrown stone (or signature added, or FB message posted) counts.

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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