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I consider London to be one of my home-towns – I grew up in a government-service family, we moved frequently, and one of the places we called home was London in the ’60s and ’70s.

London burns

I watched, with deep sorrow, as large parts of Greater London, and then Birmingham, fell under the torches and bricks of rampaging looters, ostensibly in protest of the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham during what was either a traffic stop or a drug-squad operation. Whichever version is true, the aftermath was crystal clear: chaos.

Fueled by SMS technology, unrest armed with bricks and gasoline spread like wildfire across the London suburbs: Tottenham, Ealing, Barnet, Camden, and a host of other communities became war zones. Scotland Yard was caught flat-footed, with the recent leadership shake-up driven by the Murdoch mess getting blamed for their slow response.

The viral nature of 21st century communication is a powerful tool – for good, or for ill. Like the viruses it takes its name and nature from, “viral” has no morals. It just knows one thing: SHARE ME.

The danger compounds itself by what’s usually seen, in the heat of the moment, as the only way to prevent chaos, to control the message: shut down free access.

That’s what governments in the Middle East are doing to shut down their citizens’ demands for free democracy, and what the British government was asking companies like Research in Motion (the Blackberry folks) to help them do: shut down the viral vector. SMS technology, social sharing.

It’s a dangerous game, that shutting-down. Because once you’ve started, where and when do you stop? When the High St. stops burning? When the last street is cleaned? After some kind of vetting-council “approves” you for re-connection to Facebook?

The lesson here is the same one I advise businesses to take with their communication strategy: LISTEN FIRST. If governments – be they in Lagos or London – have an active listening program in place, they’ll know that they have a problem before it literally bursts into flame.

That’s true for corporate governance, civic governance, every part of human endeavor. Mark Duggan’s death may have been the match that lit the flame, but the fuel was laying all over the ground long before that match was struck.

When it comes to your community, are you LISTENING? To your fellow citizens, to your customers, to  your constituents?

Failure to use your ears will mean you’ll have to learn how to use a fire extinguisher. Which is really challenging when your house is already on fire.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it …

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