Police in Riot Gear - disproportionate to the threat
The recent PayPal Social Media PR disaster is one of those moments which, from a distance, are hard to understand. How is it possible, we ask ourselves, for a company which deals with people and their money to be so unyielding to reason and incapable of actually examining the precise facts of the case in question?

PayPal are guilty of what every organisation on the planet is guilty of: putting in place processes designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their communication with the public. Yes, PayPal’s responses and handling of this case are totally unacceptable, but had Regretsy (the website in question) actually been a site bent on defrauding its public, then the response would have worked exactly as the process designed to deal with fraud intended. Case closed and outcome happy.

The reason it didn’t lies in a disconnect which we are all guilty of. Because technology speeds everything up and progress changes everything, we are locked in a model of escalation in the name of efficiency. One classic example is email. Because  I get the inevitable spam mail I set up filters which kill anything which falls within certain parameters. These filters are not foolproof and more than once business mail has ended up in a spam folder when, instead, it should be clamouring for my attention in my Inbox.

In seeking to gain time and use processes to address issues, we are locked in a model which takes the human factor out of the equation. This works well enough up to a point, but inevitably there will come a time when human intervention is truly required and that’s when the weaknesses of the model make themselves felt.

Take Police Riot Gear as an example. The New York Times carried a very powerful illustration of Police Riot Gear from the 60s to our days, with Police evolving from guys in short sleeved shirts and a helmet to something resembling the faceless stormtroopers of the Evil Empire in Star Wars. The graphic below shows you the process of evolution.

Police Riot Gear Evolution

See a higher resolution image at the New York Times site

Looking at the pictures you’d be forgiven for thinking that Police work has become a lot more dangerous since the 60s with demonstrator evolving from fairly benign, frustrated, human beings, exercising a constitutional right to protest, to spiky, poisonous, potentially lethal subhumans who need to be herded and contained.

Yet demonstrations have, on the most part, become far more civil affairs with a lot less violence than that encountered in the 60s. Demonstrators have become much more savvy, knowing that they will gain more through a peaceful protest than a violent one which may alienate any broader support they might enjoy otherwise.

So why this disparity in the escalation of Police Riot Gear (and arguably Police handling of protesters) to the evolution of protests themselves?

The answer lies in processes. City authorities are legally required to provide protection and a safe working environment for everyone they hire, including Police Officers. In the name of such safety (which is commendable) they constantly improve the level of protection (and by the same token the ability to retaliate) enjoyed by Police Officers sent to contain and safeguard a riot. This works well enough when Police have to attend potentially violent troublespots where they face real danger, but when it comes to policing a demonstration the processes creates more issues than it solves:

01. It dehumanizes the Police. Hidden behind visors and uniform body armour the Police stop being seen as people too, hired to do a job. They become faceless instruments which are fair target. The result is that their presence in riot gear may actually act as a contributory factor to violence breaking out during a demonstration.

02. It creates unnecessary barriers. A cop ‘hidden’ behind body armour, a visor and surrounded by equally armoured buddies, may become a lot more likely to use (and abuse) riot control weapons than a guy wearing a short sleeved shirt and sunglasses.

03. It leads to escalation. Whenever there is a ‘flare up’ of violence the Police respond with disproportionate force (they have all these great tools they are trained to use) and the rioters respond with an ever escalating measure of violence (they see the ‘enemy’ and it is not like them).

All of this could be prevented of course, just like the PayPal incident, if we interject a little common sense and some humanity into all this. Do we really need body armour, for instance, to police grannies and students? Are there ways to manage demonstrations better so that everyone is satisfied? These are not easy questions to solve, I know.

Guess what. Easy questions, just like easy jobs have gone. An algorithm or a robot is doing that. So all that is increasingly left in our world, are instances where human intervention and human common sense are required. That is what gives real value to the work being done. PayPal reps could easily be replaced by AI algorithms responding to questions from a pre-determined data set. That would work perfectly well, provided those being dealt with really are trying to defraud someone. Similarly, in a demonstration which is out of control, we can easily replace cops with machines. Pre-programmed robots which will contain the masses and limit the amount of damage which can be caused (not there yet, but it will be feasible).

Before we get to either stage, there has to be a human making the determination. Processes are created for perfectly logical reasons. But there is no logic to applying them blindly (like protocols) the moment a situation arises, without some assessment. In the 21st century the challenge is how to humanize our work, so that we limit PR disasters (and Police, everywhere have a long, rich history of them), improve the quality of interaction and succeed in delivering a customer experience which is worthy of the name.

History Offers Examples of Failing Processes

There are a few lessons to remember here. First processes have an underlying logic which went into their creation which is perfectly valid. Once in place they should not be subverted (though, obviously reviews and updates are required). Second, processes are speedy responses. They are designed to stop us from actually thinking (PayPal/Regretsy incident responses, again, anyone?) too hard. Someone else has already done that for us and we now need to apply the protocols.

Where this falls down is when a process is applied without thinking and no assessment. This leads us to the second batch of hard lessons: First, human assessments require gumption. Someone must take responsibility, put their head over the parapet and be willing to also admit that they might be wrong. Second, human assessment suggests that no process is completely failsafe and most companies, governments and organisations invest huge amounts of time and energy suggesting the opposite is true and a process needs to be trusted and implemented. After all, that’s why it has been created.

Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? That was the moment when a series of tit-for-tat responses dictated by logical protocols brought the hands of two great nations within an inch of the nuclear launch button. The eleventh-hour resolution created the Hotline Agreement giving the heads of the US government and Russia direct, human communication, devoid of protocols and processes.

Obviously the President of the US and the Prime Minister of Russia can be expected to step up and take the bullet. That, after all, is their job description. Now corporations have to find ways to emulate this model with their customers using social media.

Cuba Missile Crisis
Right now, all the money is with smaller operators who are not yet big enough to fall prey to the processes required by scaling and technology.