Brands! Please learn the social media lesson

Bic. Tinder. Kim Kardashian. Social media is a minefield - and the examples of brands that are still stepping on those mines continue to multiply, despite much more awareness of the pitfalls involved.

It’s ironic that, as Twitter’s own internal business troubles mount, its impact as a platform and channel for communications seems to be ever-more powerful.

Every brand or business should now know that you take the impact of the platform lightly at your own peril. One misplaced tweet here, an ill-judged response there, and all of a sudden you have a full-blown backlash and communications crisis on your hands.

And sometimes crises blow up due to circumstances that didn’t originate with you – at least not on social media.

However, it seems even the most disruptive of companies are still struggling to come to terms with this.

Tinder is the latest example. The dating app was the subject of a less-than-flattering profile in Vanity Fair that published last week and suggested the fast-growing app was having a corrosive effect on dating.

Its response was a 30-part Twitter tirade attacking the piece and the journalism behind it, claiming the app is used for much more than just hooking up and has helped lonely hearts improve their love lives in diverse and less web-friendly places such as China and even North Korea.

Two curious things about the response, which on the surface looked like the work of a drunken social media intern: One, it was apparently completely preplanned and outlets such as BuzzFeed were tipped off to it in advance; two, it went out some days after the Vanity Fair article initially published, making its timing seem odd.

— Jay Wilson (@jaywilsonapr) August 12, 2015

To be fair, not everyone saw the outcome of the Twitter storm as negative for Tinder – or Vanity Fair. However, Tinder itself admitted to overreacting with its Twitter response, at least in public: It was certainly a high-risk strategy and one to be undertaken with extreme caution.

Either way, and possibly unconnected (though you have to think it was at least a factor), short-lived Tinder CEO Chris Payne, a former eBay and Microsoft exec who was brought on in March, was summarily let go yesterday as the Twitter storm unfolded.

In more echoes of Twitter, Tinder’s co-founder Sean Rad has returned to the CEO role he vacated for Payne. It’s a sign of the growing pains of these fast-growing tech darlings that have to balance exponential growth with sustainable evolution.

The nature of these platforms is that often the subject of the uproar is the platform upon which the opprobrium is talking place.

Take Reddit, for example. Here’s another social media platform that has grown at frightening speed and become a victim of its own success by not abiding by the etiquette laid down by its own community, putting its very viability in question.

Reddit had become a valued PR channel for its popular Ask Me Anything sessions, in which CEOs of major brands such as Nissan and Taco Bell engaged in no-holds-barred live online chats.

But PR pros are thinking twice about using it following the platform’s firing of Victoria Taylor, its highly regarded director of talent. Taylor, who was also the site’s former communications director, oversaw the AMAs and was the point person for its unpaid moderators.

Following her ousting, moderators shut down more than 250 subreddits and users led an ultimately successful petition calling for the resignation of interim CEO Ellen Pao that received more than 100,000 signatures.

Many Reddit users disgraced themselves by attacking Pao’s race and gender. Pao resigned, and was replaced by Reddit’s original chief executive, Steve Huffman. There’s a pattern emerging here. And the platform has yet to reestablish its credibility.

On the consumer brand side, Bic created a poster advertising its ballpoint pens that included the lame line "think like a man," which somehow failed to raise alarm bells in its marketing department.

Social media users rushed to Twitter and eviscerated the ad, many giving it a Photoshop makeover. The company compounded the error with a ham-fisted response claiming it was trying to empower women.

A second apology attempted to properly respond but much of the damage to the brand had already been done. Bic has history here – in 2012 it launched a range of "pink pens for her" that got similar opprobrium on social media. When will they ever learn?

In the highly regulated world of pharmaceuticals, Kim Kardashian West last month came a cropper by posting to Instagram in support of morning-sickness pill Diclegis.

The Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Drug Promotion last week warned drugmaker Duchesnay USA, which markets Diclegis, that Kardashian West's promotion of the drug is "false and misleading" and fails to include any information about its potential risks.

There are countless other recent cases, and the example of Cecil the Lion shows that trophy hunters are going to think twice before posting pictures of themselves with dead animals anytime soon.

They all show the power of social media, which if used responsibly and creatively can also be a powerfully effective part of communications and marketing.

One excellent recent example of the potential upside was prompted by Isis Wenger, a platform engineer at cloud-based identity management company OneLogin, who launched a social media effort last week after a recruitment ad in which she was featured received a backlash on social media for being sexist.

She started the #ILookLikeAnEngineer initiative in an effort to end the gender stereotypes. The effort quickly went viral and brands joined in to showcase their female engineers on social media.

It’s significant that this campaign started organically rather than being prompted by a specific piece of brand activity, which may provide some lessons to brand marketers and social media managers.

Lots of the examples quoted above revolve around Twitter, and the iconic messaging platform is just as much a subject of conjecture and speculation on its own channel as any other brand.

Twitter is finally responding to user feedback and implemented much longer word counts for things such as its direct messaging feature, which will no longer be confined to 140 characters, and you can now add text beyond 140 characters when you retweet or quote a tweet.

It has clearly had some challenges in evolving and developing not only its revenue models but also its technical underpinning.

In a panel PRWeek ran in Cannes in partnership with MSLGroup, Uber’s EMEA head of communications Gareth Mead said "disruption is a scary word for a lot of people, unless you're the one doing the disruption... Regardless of whether you're the creator or the respondent, that fear can drive lots of different kinds of behavior."

But it seems from the case studies above that disruption is scary for the disruptors as well. They are just as susceptible to the social media minefields they are creating as any other brand or business.

I hope Twitter can come through these tough times and bolt on the sustainable revenue streams that will enable it to prosper and stay a big part of our lives – though there may be some brands and social media managers out there who have been burned by the platform who don’t necessarily agree.

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