A Little Bird Told Me. Five Common Social Media Mistakes That Can Affect Your Brand

Summer has been a banner season for learning – or re-learning – what we thought everyone knew: the internet travels at warp speed; covering up mistakes is a brand’s E-ticket ride to the outhouse,; and timing is everything.

Experimenting with new media necessarily gives rise to mistakes and unintended consequences of brand messaging. Tolerating a certain number of judgment errors is the cost of learning how to capitalize on new media and spread around information about the brand. Companies can, however, hedge their bets by learning from the mistakes of others and remembering a few simple rules as they push out their branding communications.

Be Yourself
Since advertising began, companies have tried to connect with consumers by establishing themselves as the preferred brand among people “just like you.”

Sony was one of the first to be hoisted on its own hip-hop petard, when it introduced its latest version of the PSP, which it hoped to push during the Christmas season. Not wanting to wait for actual reviews by edgy gamers of its new PSP, Sony planted fake blog posts, purported to be from a local rapper-style gamer. Within hours, the origin of the fake posts were discovered and Sony was ridiculed as a stodgy company vying for credentials it never had.

Fortunately for Sony, it didn’t make a bad situation worse by trying to cover it up. Instead, in the place of the blog post it wrote:

Busted. Nailed. Snagged. As many of you have figured out (maybe our speech was a little too funky fresh???), Peter isn’t a real hip-hop maven ad this site was actually developed by Sony. Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever.

The company added it would stick to making games in the future, and has kept that promise since 2006.

Be yourself: a simple concept, but one that has been lost in the marketing departments of too many companies. Indeed, phony online endorsements are so frequent that the FTC had to clarify its false advertising standards in 2009, making clear that any relationship between a company and a party online must be disclosed to consumers, or the company could face liability for false and misleading advertising.

Honda was recently embarrassed when it was discovered its director of product planning posted his love for a new Honda vehicle as if he were a curious car-shopper rather than an employee. The action not only opens up Honda to FTC scrutiny, but made Honda look silly.

In the wake of The Jim Henson company pulling its toys from the Chick-Fil-A chain last week, Chick-Fil-A has recently been accused of putting up a fake Facebook fan to bolster the company’s claims about why it no longer carries Muppet toys. Well-meaning fan or company plant, such posts have reduced the credibility in the eyes of consumers.

The quickest road to credibility is to be who you are in the online space. Deviating from your corporate persona is sure to be discovered and likely to cause problems. Don’t be tempted.

Know What You’re Saying
There’s nothing worse than using Twitter to deliver up-to-the-minute information, only to discover your communication is inaccurate, old, or divisive. In June, CNN sent instant texts and tweets out that the Supreme Court had overturned Obamacare only to discover it had gotten the story wrong, and had to issue a subsequent message. Such an error from a news organization is embarrassing, but under many circumstances can be forgiven. Some companies, however, may not be so lucky.

Last week, in the wake of one of the biggest shooting massacres in Colorado history, a women’s clothing company in the UK sent out a link to its site using the following tweet: “Aurora is trending, clearly about Kim K inspired Aurora dress. 😉 Shop”[.] The online merchant later admitted it had not taken the time to determine if the tweet was accurate. While the company removed the insensitive tweet and apologized for the mishap, it may have inadvertently tanked sales on the dress.

The consequences of even truthful tweets can raise unintended issues. Recently, Mitt Romney tweeted his respect for Sally Ride and touted her as a personal inspiration and among the greatest of pioneers. The tweet was admirable, and in all likelihood accurate, but it nevertheless caused a stir among gay rights activists. The tweet called into the public eye Mr. Romney’s stated position on gay marriage, and caused a social media hornets’ nest that his campaign might have avoided had it though twice about the comment.

Never Attack the Messenger
Companies frequently take great pains to train their customer service representatives to handle angry or disgruntled callers with kid gloves, but often fail to make the connection between customer service and online communications. The nature of social media is to drive and support interactivity between the customer and the brand. Yet most companies fail to provide even the most modest training in decorum to their employees responsible for social media monitoring.

Price Chopper got national attention for its unpolitic reaction to a consumer’s tweet. The consumer tweeted a photo of a disheveled grocery aisle along with the comment: “Every time I go to @PriceChopperNY I realize why they r not @wegmans.” Angry at the insinuation that Price Chopper was beneath the level of a competitive brand, the public relations specialist at Price Chopper not only sent the customer nasty comments from her personal Twitter account, but also contacted the customer’s employer, saying his tweets were negative and destructive.

The firestorm that erupted from customers made the rogue Tweeter’s comments seem tame. Word travelled fast, and Price Chopper found itself at the wrong end of a PR nightmare.

When customers got on the online offensive, brand owners should take the same position they do with their phone calls. Listen and then investigate. Penalizing the consumer is only going to increase the likelihood the story – and the problem – will never go away.

Nestle’s Kit-Kat division picked the wrong era to start a war with consumers. Nestle thumbed its nose at consumer requests for it to change its palm oil supplier to one that was not harming the rainforests. Angry at being rebuffed, activists changed the KIT-KAT packaging to read KILLER, causing Nestle to launch a trademark infringement offensive, which resulted in the activists creating horrible videos in which Kit-Kat bars appeared to be made from Orangutan fingers.

At the end of the campaign, Nestle agreed to change palm oil carriers, but not before serious damage had been inflicted on the brand. Had Nestle used social media to engage its consumer, it might have bought itself some time and a reputation for being responsive.

Edgy is not Always Appropriate
Any comedian will tell you: timing is everything. Whether something is funny or offensive is partially related to who the audience is, but when a tragic event is too recent in the minds of the consumer, jokes and edgy marketing campaigns can backfire.

Consider Kenneth Cole’s 2011 tweet about the Cairo uprising: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online . . .” The communication did not go over well with followers who were quick to point out that Kenneth Cole’s making light of people dying in the streets to sell fashion was in poor taste.

In the wake of flaming Twitter attacks, the shoe company tweeted it didn’t mean to make light of the matter, but history suggests it meant to do exactly that. Earlier the company executed a print media campaign that equated abortion rights with a handbag choice. The ad, posted on billboards, displayed a woman carrying a handbag, with the words: “Should it be a woman’s right to choose if she’s the one carrying it?” Consumers didn’t buy it, or the lukewarm apology Kenneth Cole sent out.

After the Japan Tsumani disaster , comic Gilbert Godfried tweeted “I just broke up with my girlfriend, but as the Japanese say, ‘They’ll be another one floating by any minute now.’” AFLAC was quick to pull his spokesman contract after consumers decried the insensitivity of his comments.

Being on the cutting edge of an issue or joke displays a certain level of intellectual savvy that many companies – particularly those going after the 30-something-with-money crowd want to showcase. The line between funny and offensive or insensitive is thinnest when issues are most current. Breathe, watch, and take a moment to think.

Admit Your Mistakes
The practice of denying involvement in an embarrassing gaffe might have worked prior to Watergate, but the Internet makes sleuthing out the truth faster and easier — just ask Congressman Weiner. The ever-growing list of companies and people who’ve inadvertently “messed up and stepped back in it” has made clear: the quickest way to a firestorm is to downplay your involvement. The fastest way to clear it up is to apologize and correct the problem.

Apologies can come in different forms, but what consumers seem to be looking for is an acknowledgement of the problem and a sense of humor. Anything short of that is not going to be effective.

Bob Parson of GoDaddy knows the sting of the defensive position. Already teetering on the edge of a misogynistic public image, the Internet CEO tweeted “Just back from hunting problem elephant in Zimbabwe. Here’s my vacation video.”

In response to GoDaddy followers suggesting his actions were barbaric, he defended his killing of the endangered animal. As a result, a campaign was started to move domains from the GoDaddy platform. A simple removal of the offending tweet and an apology might have kept the matter from affecting his brand.

Earlier this year, Susan G. Komen executive Karen Handel was forced to resign after taking a defensive stance on her decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. A quick apology and restoration of the funds might have saved face for Komen and a job for Handel.

We can take a page from the Red Cross book. Last year, an employee – believing he was on his personal account – tweeted the following using the Red Cross Twitter name: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…. When we drink we do it right. #gettingslizzered.”

As soon as comments came in questioning whether it was appropriate to be drinking when saving lives, the culprit quickly acknowledged his ineptitude, using his own account, and Red Cross tweeted: “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”

Drinkers of Dogfish head beer (including Dogfish itself) started a donation campaign for the Red Cross “because they handled that @dogfish / #gettingslizzered tweet so well.” Properly handled, the mistake became a money-maker for the Red Cross, and while not everyone can turn a gaffe into an opportunity, the result makes clear the public is willing to forgive under the right circumstances.

Brands can benefit tremendously from the viral nature of social media campaigns. Companies on the cutting edge of technology will surely find ways to use various online tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, to promote their brands, and the further they push the envelope, the more likely unintended consequences will occur. We cannot know what major guffaw will grace our feed tomorrow, but we can at least learn from what happened yesterday.

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