There is a rather predictable pattern that follows any corporate brand's publicized social media fail.
The offending organization realizes – only after some threshold of social media outrage is reached – that a mistake has been made and that corrective action is required. The organization then attempts to delete the offending Tweet, Facebook post, etc., which in turn leads to even more outrage, as by now multiple individuals have grabbed a screen capture and are circulating it far and wide.
Finally, PR and marketing professionals take to blogs, social media, and media outlets to express their incredulity such a blunder could have been made; then offer any number of crisis communications strategies, tips, and lessons.
Two incidents this week placed this cycle on full display. In both cases, attempts to honor the 9-11 anniversary backfired. First, AT&T tweeted an image of the Twin Towers site as shown through an AT&T phone. Then, someone (presumably a guest) staying at a Marriott hotel tweeted an image at the hotel breakfast buffet that read: “In remembrance of those we lost on 9-11, we will provide complimentary coffee and mini muffins from 8:45-9:15 am.”
Ok, where to begin? Let's operate under the premise that very few people in this world set out with an idea designed to offend as many people as possible. If we take a step back and look at these two incidents, you have one company, AT&T, which probably attempted to recognize 9/11 in a way connected to its brand. Unfortunately for them, the Twitterverse interpreted it as a thinly veiled attempt to push its product.
The Marriott situation is different, in the sense it wasn't a proactive brand push but instead, according to Marriott, an independent action by hotel management. Again, from that hotel's perspective, a seemingly innocuous gesture on behalf of hotel guests was interpreted as a paltry 30 minutes of free mini muffins.
Crisis communications is a useful service for PR pros to provide, but, as the name implies, a service activated only after a crisis has occurred. PR and marketing teams don multiple hats, and as more of these social media disasters pop up and wreak havoc on a brand's goodwill and bottom line, PR pros must rethink their role, evaluate when this role should be played, and determine how proactive they must be in raising red flags.
PR must serve as a critical, objective focus group for social media brand initiatives. Again, this is no easy task: Social media moves fast, often way too fast for a lot of back and forth to test tweets out. At the same time, it can be hard for agencies to serve as a wet blanket for client ideas. But the 9-11 anniversary date wasn't exactly a surprise, so AT&T's image should have been vetted more thoroughly – and part of that vetting process should involve PR teams.
We, as professionals, are naturally paranoid on how any brand effort will be perceived, and can play a key role ensuring the ideation process doesn't become too insular.
Brian Lustig is a partner at Bluetext, a branding, digital marketing, and strategic communications agency based in Washington DC.