Back in June, I was honored to be included in a PR Week roundtable on modern activism. PR Week has since published the transcript in a free eBook, which you can download here.

In the communications world, activism is rarely thought of positively. Instead, we usually associate activists with customers (or shareholders) who don’t like the way a company is going and will petulantly alert stakeholders, shine media attention and generally disrupt the normal flow of business until they’re outmaneuvered, ignored or victorious. Activists tend to lose even more points when you consider that it’s a lot easier to complain and cause trouble than it is to accommodate every possible objection and still run a thriving company.

Yet this panel made me realize something I hadn’t appreciated before: activists are fundamentally superfans.

Consider that most customers get what they want from a company and go about their day. Try getting even a happy customer to stay on that line for a post-call survey; it’s an exercise in absurdist theater. Our reward for a good job for most companies is our money and our business; any additional conversation is gravy.

Yet activists not only want your company’s products, but they also believe your company can and should be better. They believe this so strongly that they invest their own time and energy to create a petition, write emails, hit social media and even do a little old fashioned PR. A panelist from change.org had dozens of great examples of successful activism in action—check out their site for some impressive “victories” ranging from pushing the NFL to drop its nonprofit status to pressuring officials to liberate political dissidents from Iranian prisons.

Recast in this light, activist movements can provide invaluable insights into a company. Harnessed correctly, these superfans can become a company’s top advocates while nudging your company into a smarter business direction.

My other “aha” moment on the panel was the realization that social media is essentially a digital gateway to your superfans, complete with key metrics and trends. That may sound pretty 2009, but the tools around aggregating sentiment and conversations all in one place have come a long way. And that social media gateway’s not just for making fun of the Super Bowl power outage or retweeting Ellen’s Oscars selfie; it’s a way to build those relationships with superfans and hopefully snuff out their concerns before they boil over.

Sadly, most companies are still taken completely by surprise when an activist chorus strikes up. Checking out this roundtable transcript is an easy way to get a head start on keeping the chorus roar to a minimum—and maybe even convincing them to sing out of your songbook.

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