2013 – Communications Breakdowns

An image of an old echidna and a baby echidna, with a banner that reads "The Year in Review"

Last week, we kicked off our 2013 recap with an article titled, "2013 – The Year We Learned How to Connect," which looked at three key trends in digital marketing. For our second Year in Review piece, let's look at some of the most glaring examples of people who may need a refresher course in how to use social networking.

And, as we always advocate, it's not just about pointing out the bad. It's more important to offer solutions and grow from our mistakes, so I've included some lessons learned from each of these three categories.

Sour Public Relations

Saving the worst for last? Possibly. In the "should have known better" category, in December a senior PR representative from a major U.S.-based media and Internet company tweeted a so-called joke before she got on a flight to Africa. "Going to Africa," she wrote. "Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

Making fun of a third-world nation? Check. AIDS humour? Check. Racism? Check. It's like the Unholy Trinity of poor decisions.

Twitter, of course, jumped on this like a dog with a bone. Since the rep's flight was wi-fi free, she had no idea the storm that was following her. Not only did Twitter blow up with a #HasJustineLandedYet hash tag, but she was immediately denounced by her company, and fired shortly thereafter.

So what did we learn here? When you have an on-line presence and are affiliated with a company, you no longer have a strictly personal account. This is just an extreme example of what many people face every day, but the truth of the matter is that you have to think before you Tweet.

I have a personal site and a personal Twitter feed. I am also an employee. Like it or not, what I say or do on-line can have an impact on the company that I work for. This doesn't mean I have to subjugate my beliefs or lie, but it does mean – and this is just common sense – that I must behave respectfully and appropriately.

It's kind of sad that we need that lesson at all. What you say and do on-line has a direct impact on your reputation. Just assume that nothing is ever private. Weigh everything you're about to write in a risk/reward fashion – is the reward worth risking you livelihood? In this case, was a stupid, racist joke worth a career?

Yes, we have freedom of speech, but with that freedom comes the responsibility to use it wisely. If your Twitter feed is filled with apologies for previous Tweets, perhaps it's time to institute a three-minute rule: Before you click send, wait for three minutes. If after the initial passion has subsided you still feel your comment has value and it appropriate, then Tweet away. Chances are cooler heads will prevail.

And you'll have to apologize far less often.

Here's a Tip. Don't Tweet

Bookending the year, we saw a couple of examples of restaurant employees taking to social media to air their grievances.

In January an Applebee's employee posted a receipt on Reddit. In response to an automatic 18 per cent levy added to a group table, a customer wrote, "I give God 10%, why do you get 18?" on the bill.

It wasn't the server that posted the photo, it was a co-worker who took the photo and posted it on-line. In the end, that employee was fired, Applebee's had to endure a tremendous amount of negativity (and didn't handle their Facebook page well, deleting several critical posts), and through it all the truth of the matter was what suffered.

The customer was vilified for "not leaving a tip." Only upon sober analysis did people realize that the customer in fact paid the 18 per cent and was questioning its inclusion.

At its best, social media can be a powerful force for good. At its worst? Nothing more than a lynch mob run by a bunch of keyboard cowboys.

As we saw in November.

That month, a New Jersey waitress posted a receipt that appeared to have no tip included and an anti-gay statement written. The Internet exploded in support of this waitress, with several people sending her donations.

The truth of the matter appears to be more murky. The family said not only did it not write that note, but that they provided a tip and apparently they have the receipts and Visa statement to back it up. The waitress parted ways from the restaurant in a mutual decision, according to the company. And the waitress in question returned donations to the donors.

In both cases, the on-line response was visceral and one-sided. And, in both cases, fully formed opinions were made in an environment devoid of all the facts.

What we learned is a lesson in patience. Unfortunately, we're living in a world that demands immediacy. The people who preach for patience and facts are often drowned out by those who see every issue in black and white – facts are just impediments to a good, old-fashioned, public outrage.

To a lesser impact, we see it through shared memes, statements, and opinions. From stories of alleged corporate greed to the regularly returning Facebook "graphic" [sic] search scare, it's an increasingly rare habit for people to take a moment, do a little research, and not take everything at face value.

From a corporate perspective, it can be damaging. Reputations can be damaged with the click of a mouse for nothing more than irresponsible sharing.

When You Fight Dirty, No One Comes Out Clean

This year, we saw a fair share of companies deciding to get down and dirty on the Internet. And, to no one's surprise, none of the participants came out clean.

First off we had the example set by Amy's Baking Company. Just type in Amy's Baking Company Facebook into your search bar. If you have autocomplete turned on, you'll likely be presented with "rant," "meltdown," and other terms of the sort – none of which are positive.

The long and the short of it? An Arizona restaurant was featured on Kitchen Nightmares. Allegedly it's the first time that the show's host, Gordon Ramsay, was unable to finish a transformation. The restaurant receives negative feedback on Facebook. The restaurant's owners allegedly fire back in a rant that Forbes used as the foundation of its article "Lessons from Amy's Baking Company: Six Things You Should Never do on Social Media."

Later on in the year, golfer Lee Westwood decided to take on some critics of his game by indulging in a little schoolyard name calling.

In both cases, the principals received a tonne of negative exposure. They both came out of the exchange looking like children, and they gained absolutely nothing from the exchange.

From a business perspective, you have so much to lose: customers, partners, and – most importantly – respect.

So what do we learn? How you handle yourself, in both good and bad situations, matters. There are people I don't agree with that I respect because of their willingness to interact respectfully. And there are people I should like that I have absolutely no respect for because they treat the Internet as their personal sandbox, engaging in behaviours that are puerile at best and bullying at worst.

That three-minute rule applies here. It's better to engage in a little sober forethought instead of apologizing after the fact. It's easy to say, "Oh, I got caught up in the moment" or "I'm just so passionate about this, that..." but that's how kids react. As adults – and especially as businesses – we're supposed to be better than that.

There are ways to handle negativity on-line without resorting to name calling (troll, anyone?) or disrespect. We've discussed this very matter in this blog.

The point is that most of your readers are smart. They know when people are lying, have a personal vendetta, or have ulterior motives. They know when someone's 'dirty' so there's no need to join them in the pen.

Being respectful, replying to falsehoods with fact, and addressing complaints with courtesy can only help your business. In fact, some of your biggest critics can turn into your biggest fans if you listen to what they're saying (as opposed to how they're saying it), and work to resolve the core issue.

And now it's over to you. What lessons have you learned from social media and digital marketing efforts this year? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Questions Answered

What are some examples of bad social media?

What were the worst social media mistakes of 2013?



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