Openly critical – an interview with Jeff Jarvis

Journalist and author Jeff Jarvis gained international attention in 2005 when he posted furious criticisms of Dell’s customer service on his blog, forcing it to change its culture.  He has since won a wide following as an advocate of openness in business, and is still stirring things up.

During the summer he tweeted his frustrations about political deadlock in Washington and invited other users to join in. His #fuwashington hashtag got 110,000 retweets, as people used it to voice their own complaints. Now he  sees the Occupy Wall Street movement doing the same, with social networks being used as a channel for individuals to voice their distrust with banks and institutions. “What confounds politicians and the media about this sort of movement is that it has no leader,” he says. “A Twitter hashtag has no hierarchy or structure. It’s an empty vessel whose potential is to resonate with people.”

This is the way the world is heading, Jarvis contends. The 800 million people who interact every day on Facebook shows the sheer power of the impulse to connect, and he fervently believes that this sort of openness can be used by businesses to good effect.  He rattles off examples, from companies like Google issuing unfinished products as beta versions that customers can improve – “a remarkable statement of humanity and humility”, he believes – to asking customers to come up with design suggestions for a new product, or even paying up front in order to finance it.

He has personal experience about the benefits of openness, having written about his prostate cancer on his blog. “Some might call me insane for doing so, but it really helped, with people coming and giving me support – people who would never have known if I hadn’t gone public about it.”

Give people the opportunity to contribute and most likely they will come up with creative ideas, Jarvis believes. He likes to cite the example of Starbucks, whose customers made suggestions that would save them having to stand in line, for instance by pre-ordering on a smart phone or enabling the card to automate the order.  “They were given the respect and the tools to solve the problems they sensed, and they took advantage of that,” he says. “They feel they made a difference, and I can’t see how that is bad.”

Jarvis is by no means dismissive of legitimate concerns about privacy in business, particularly those like banks and consultancies for whom data security is a major issue. But he still thinks that worrying too much about privacy is getting things back to front. “I attended a Future of Privacy forum in Washington recently, where they started talking about how to define it,” he relates. “I argued they should instead think first about why people were sharing and what they were trying to get out of it, and then decide how to achieve that securely and  safely. That’s what we have to design around.”

If companies are worried about a public backlash if their secrets become public then perhaps they should change their behaviour, he suggests. “Imagine that what you do becomes public overnight. If you’re ashamed of it, then don’t do it.”

How can a company maintain brand control at the same time as enabling more of its employees to represent it on social channels? It can’t, Jarvis states bluntly, but nor should it want to. “The truth is, you don’t have control because your customers own your brand. The brand is the relationship you have with the public, and people don’t want a relationship with an official slogan or a mechanised corporate voice.”

There’s not much architectural change needed to achieve openness, however cultural change is another matter, and that is harder, Jarvis agrees. There’s a sense in which marketing and PR departments put themselves out of a job when they throw open what they do to everyone in the company. Nevertheless, that’s what they should be doing, he thinks, creating an enthusiasm for maintaining good relationships with customers through the entire organisation.

All this might sound rather abstract, but Jarvis knows from his own experience advising companies that it can be done. “You need to sit down and start to rethink how you can have a relationship with your customers,” he says. “Where are those points of contact, what do people want and need, where can they collaborate? That’s where it all starts to become more specific.”

Jeff Jarvis is the author of What Would Google Do? and Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. He blogs at

From Social Business, Q4, 2011


Social Business magazine – Q4 2011 – Quarterly magazine of the Social Media Leadership Forum