Gibson Guitar, the maker of the iconic Les Paul and Firebird guitars, is using social media to build support from around the world as it battles the U.S. government over allegations of illegal wood imports. A Twitter campaign launched by Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz (hash tag “#ThisWillNotStand”) has rallied thousands of Gibson Guitar fans, with nearly 4,400 tweets at last count. Wharton experts say Gibson may be tapping into social media’s true power, regardless of the outcome of the allegations.
On August 24, armed agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raided two Gibson manufacturing facilities in Tennessee along with the company’s Nashville, Tenn., headquarters, and confiscated $1 million worth of rare Indian ebony, finished guitars and electronic data. The federal agency hasn’t yet filed any charges, but the Justice Department alleges the wood was imported illegally from India, which bans the export of most types of unfinished wood. The Lacey Act of 1900 requires American companies to observe the laws of foreign countries in the trade of animal products, plants and wood, among items. Gibson faced similar trouble in 2009, when federal agents raided the company and seized wood they say was illegally imported from Madagascar. The Justice Department last June sued Gibson in the Madagascar case. Juszkiewicz maintains Gibson is innocent in both cases and just today posted an online petition urging the President to resolve the inquiry against it and “make the Lacey Act fair.”
Meanwhile, Juszkiewicz’s current Twitter pitch has David vs. Goliath undertones. “Each step in the democratization of access to these communications tools has been empowering to some — typically the less powerful — and threatening to others, typically those who hold the traditional reins of power,” says Kendall Whitehouse, Wharton director of new media. Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger describes social media as “a new engine for social movements,” citing its role in the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere. “It allows people to garner support for issues where public participation may not be safe until enough of a movement has formed,” he says. “It also allows companies and groups to build momentum and advocacy quickly and effectively, even over vast geographic distances.”
The rise of instantaneous, global communications has changed much of the way the world works, Whitehouse notes. “In particular, the lowering of the barriers of access to these tools is having a profound effect — not only on government and small businesses, but on everything from political movements to major corporations.”
Social media is only the most recent link in a long chain that extends back to at least the rise of the Internet, Whitehouse adds. “The students during the uprising in Tiananmen Square got much of their message out — and learned of the reaction of the world — through fax machines. It’s the communication of the message rather than the mechanism that’s important. Social media further allows people and enterprises to connect and collaborate online.”
Gibson may have enlarged its fan base with its Twitter campaign, but its reputation has not been spotless. In 2009, Gibson was voted the “worst place to work” by its own employees, according to a Reuters report, which cited an analysis by jobs website Glassdoor.com. How successfully Gibson can defend itself in court, if and when federal charges are filed, is also an open question. It isn’t clear if this is the first time a company has used social media to fight a legal case. “But I agree it could lead to under-informed supporters backing a cause that ends up to have no merit,” says Berger. “As with many situations, consumers may be showing their advocacy even if they don’t have the right information.”
In an unwitting twist, Juszkiewicz’s campaign has also become a platform for Tea Party enthusiasts targeting President Barack Obama over unemployment. Accusing “big government [of] spending our money to harm ordinary citizens and small businesses,” Juszkiewicz has warned that if the raids lead to the closure of Gibson’s Tennessee factories, 700 jobs would be lost. At Obama’s jobs address last Thursday, Juszkiewicz was the special guest of Marsha Blackburn, Republican congresswoman from Tennessee. Says Andy Meek in The Daily Beast: “The invite was a definite nose-thumbing at the President, whose administration inadvertently helped turn Gibson … into a rabble-rousing battle cry for the Tea Party and conservative media establishment.”
Others point to some bizarre situations that could result from the Lacey Act, such as requiring guitar owners to prove their instrument was not made out of illegal wood. As The Economist writes in its September 3 edition: “Guitarists now worry that every time they cross a state border with their instrument, they will have to carry sheaves of documents proving that every part of it was legally sourced.”