When Social Media Attention Goes Wrong

The old saying goes there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But that saying came about way before Twitter was invented.

People do say the darndest things, especially on Twitter. Sometimes you wonder what they could possibly be thinking when they say them. Particularly since even a seemingly innocent remark, taken out of context, can blow up into a feeding frenzy that can destroy your career or business.

Consider Justine Sacco, a former director of corporate communications for IAC who tweeted while about to embark on a business trip, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.” As The New York Times Magazine reports, people didn’t take it as merely a bad joke told in poor taste. Thanks to the viral nature of social media, Sacco’s 170 Twitter followers grew to tens of thousands angry denouncements of Sacco as a racist who IAC should fire.

Which is what they did.

Nor is Sacco’s case that unusual. A number of people whose online comments and photos were at best the result of not thinking have caused a social tsunami of calls for dismissal. Harassment moved from the virtual world to the real one, with volumes of hate mail and death threats being sent. Businesses are equally vulnerable. 

Related Article: Don’t Be That Guy: Bad Social Media Habits to Break Now

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

Consider these highly-inappropriate, if not outright dumb, examples, as reported by SEJ:

  • The day after the Boston Marathon bombing, a cooking site posts a scone recipe as a way to help its 480,000 Twitter followers cope.
  • Kenneth Cole sends the following tweet during height of the Syrian civil war: “Boots on the ground” or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear.”
  • The American Rifleman sends this pre-scheduled tweet, “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” on the day of a tragic shooting in Colorado. They at least had the sense to delete the tweet once they learned of the incident.
  • What was Kmart thinking when it added a promo code for its #Fab15Toys campaign to a tweet offering thoughts and prayers for the 2013 Newtownn, Conn. shooting?
  • American Apparel and the Gap expressed their concerns about the safety of customers during the impending Hurricane Sandy storm to encourage followers to shop online.

These are primarily examples of cloudy thinking by corporate decision-makers. Sometimes employees go rogue, as happened to Home Depot when an outside agency posted a tweet that was clearly racist.

The Bad News Is Out, Now What?

ABC News reports how Home Depot responded immediately by firing the agency that created the tweet and the responsible Home Depot employee that posted it. Then it tweeted in announcing the dismissals, “We have zero tolerance for anything so stupid and offensive…We’re also closely reviewing our social media procedures to determine how this could have happened, and how to ensure it never happens again.”

The response was mixed, with some on social media commenting this was an attempt to offload blame, while others complemented Home Depot for taking responsibility and acting promptly.

Taking action is not going to please everyone. But taking no action, or taking too much time, is worse. You’re in damage control mode and the object is to minimize harm and lay the groundwork for recovery. The sooner, the better. Just don’t expect apologizing or firing those responsible to make everything immediately all right again. It takes time to rebuild your bridges.

Related Article: Post Like a Pro: Social Media Tips for Every Small Business

Stay Calm and Carry On

Above all, resist the urge to engage in social media fisticuffs. Even if you think you’re right. Even if you are right.

Vertical Response notes how Applebee’s, in response to an uproar over firing a waitress who posted a customer’s note online, made the problem worse by deleting comments and blocking users to its Facebook page who complained about the action. If you feel you must respond to critical comments, do it calmly and rationally.

Once you’ve stated your position, don’t keep repeating it for every critical comment. Above all, don’t block anything—there’s nothing more likely to further inflame the social media mob, which will just take its anger to another forum.

Create a separate page to handle the issue and try to carry on business as usual elsewhere. Above all, scrutinize all scheduled and proposed social media posts to ensure anything that could even remotely be construed as inappropriate as related to the issue doesn’t go out.

Weather the Storm, but Prepare for the Next

At some point, whatever online faux pas you’ve committed becomes yesterday’s news. If you take responsibility quickly and honestly with appropriate steps, it’ll be yesterday sooner rather than later.

Crisis over?

Not quite. As The Huffington Post notes, it’s time to circle back and continue to reach out to those who felt wronged and try to mend fences. Keep them updated on new policies and procedures put in place to correct the problem.

Above all, be extra diligent that future social media avoids not just the boneheaded, but anything that is possibly off message. If you even think something could offend a reasonable person, it probably will.


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