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Online dolphin crusade, justly placed

~by: Howard Lee~

If you can't take the heat, it's time to call it quits. Or at least, pull the plug.

That seems to be the message that Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) is sending out about itself, when it barred users from posting on its Facebook page, and then accused the Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES) of “cyber harassment” by inciting its Facebook followers to upload images en masse.

If you have read my position thus far on this issue, you might be surprised by who I think is the party who drew first blood.

In truth, I believe ACRES has started some serious social action and online lobbying against RWS here. And I say this in no disrespect to Louis Ng and his supporters, whom I have a great deal of respect for.  Here's why.

Some history, some context

To date, RWS has been adamant about its position on conservation and animal welfare. When it withdrew its decision to carry on with its whale shark exhibit in May 2009, it cited economic sustainability reasons above environmental ones. The decision was made at the height of much public outcry about animal cruelty and the need to protect endangered species, and ACRES also played a part in that effort among afew other organisations.

The "Save the World's Saddest Dolphins" campaign started robustly in May 2011 as a continuation of this effort, when it became clear that RWS, while foregoing the whale shark exhibit, is intent on bringing in the dolphins as part of is fulfillment of its Integrated Resorts agreement with the government.

As such, ACRES's intentions to rally support against RWS's marine park attractions are not new to RWS. Indeed, "Save the World's Saddest Dolphins" has the makings of one of the most open, well-thought-out and measured lobby campaigns that I have seen.  ACRES had on many occasions requested RWS to clarify its position on the dolphin attraction, attempting to measure its so-called animal conservation and research efforts against international standards, current best practices and beliefs in the matter.

A taste of what's to come

The effort peaked at the official launch of the campaign, when ACRES released an undercover video of the dolphins held in their training facilities in the Solomon Islands.  At that point, the campaign's momentum swung upwards, with thousands of Facebook users rallying to the cause.

Not resting on this success, ACRES directed a list of 25 questions at RWS, presumably one for each dolphin still in captivity, requesting for unambiguous answers on why RWS intends to pursue its course of action despite clear indicators from international research that, put simply, a dolphin spa is a really bad idea for both the dolphins and human beings.

But RWS continued relentlessly with its dolphin spa project, ignoring the questions from ACRES, or at best continuing to insist that the dolphins are doing well, without providing clear evidence of the mental and physical well-being of the animals in their custody.

The writing was on the wall – indeed,  long before it appeared on any online wall that RWS owns.  So it should have come as no surprise when supporters of the "Save the World's Saddest Dolphins" campaign started posting their protests on RWS's Facebook page, coordinated or otherwise.

It has been ACRES's clearly stated objective to leverage social media to effect sea change for this particular campaign. To call it a deliberate attack is almost laughable. If anything, it has really been a drawn-out war that is starting to make RWS’s cookie-cut responses sound tiresome.

Two cyber no-no’s

By all counts, I believe that ACRES has done the right thing, and all in accordance with the law. If there is any failing to be found in this incident, it would beon RWS, who I believe committed two “cardinal sins” of online communication.

The first is that it seeks to control opinion online simply by managing its own channels. Its attempts – stating and restating its outdated position even in light of evidence to the contrary, then taking punitive action by first deleting comments and later closing off comments – indicates a blunt belief that it owns its own Facebook page and can basically do anything it wants with it. That might be true, but it cannot hope to own the conversations that users have chosen, nor hope to win over opinions by doing so.

The second is that it believes it can use a standard template and call it “continual engagement”. Doggedly referring back to the same answer to different questions is a sign of desperation, not reason. And if it wishes to enter the online arena, it must understand that reason rules and users are inclined to seek clear and direct answers to their queries. The last straw was to heap the blame on ACRES to account for its own inability to keep pace with the debate raging at its doorstep.

RWS attempted to defend its actions by saying it’s community of Facebook fans have been inconvenienced by ARCES’s actions. But it failed to understand that its fans also include those who persist in questioning its motivations behind the dolphin spa project. We do not create our little enclaves of preferred online communities and call it a day. If we seek to enlarge it, we need to understand that the larger it grows, the more diverse the opinions and demands within. And I say “within”, because it is precisely RWS’s attempt to draw lines betweenACRES’s “them” and an its “us” of compliant followers that possibly alienatesit from the wider community it hopes to reach out to.

The article by TODAY alluded that RWS's reaction typified “cultural differences” in how “Asian companies tend to be less receptive in managing stakeholders online compared to American or European companies”. That is reallyonly part of the story, if at all.

If anything, its reluctance to communicate openly and address the concerns of protesters – the very people it needs to convince of its intentions – has relegated RWS to nothing but a corporate dinosaur that has little respect for public opinion, insisting dogmatically that it is always right. It is a mockery of how modern online engagement should be done.

RWS's attempts to manage its little piece of cyberspace typified any corporation that realises that it is outnumbered in favorability and outclassed in argument. You know you have the worst possible plan when you fail to see it coming, do not prepare a proper response, believe that you can spin your way out of it, and futilely seek to control an obviously open environment.  The actual stupidity is in following through with it.