Social media: where marketing and PR collide

The following is a response to Jinnean Barnard’s thought-provoking article A Recipe for Collective Outrage which can be found on her blog Digital Pique.

One thing that the BP and Cooks Source incidents have in common is hubris, though the two cases are separated by several orders of magnitude in scale. It reminds us that the “social” aspect of “social media” doesn’t merely mean that lots of people are logged in to Facebook, but that they are in fact people, with personalities, opinions, and morals. Remember the branding exercise during which you were asked to imagine “if your brand was a person, what would he or she be like?” Thanks to social media, your brand is now going to have to think about what it takes to walk in that person’s shoes.

Once marketers suggest (as we do, and strongly) that companies a) get involved in the social space; b) try to aim for some degree of transparency; and c) make sure the phones are manned by people who know what they’re doing, we should also consider advising them on how this new(ish) environment affects not only how they talk about what they do, but what they do.

It’s pretty clear that the hijackings of both BP and Cooks Source were fueled by moral outrage, and not simply over accidents or mistakes, but over the response to having been called out on what was obviously a lapse in (or absence of) judgment on the part of the Cooks Source editor, and a crime against nature on the part of BP.

I realise this goes beyond marketing into the realm of PR, but that’s what transparency is going to do to you. Once you find yourself on the wrong side of righteous outrage, and it’s dangerous to assume that you never will, it doesn’t matter how many people are manning the phones if those people aren’t armed with appropriate responses.

These flashpoints, the recent don’t touch my junk TSA video among them, are called flashpoints because that’s how quickly they happen. There are a whole pile of technologically literate people out there who have been straight-armed by corporate, municipal, and federal authorities their whole lives, and who, thanks to the internet, have discovered that they’re not alone, they’re not crazy, and they’re not powerless. Personally, I think it’s a tiny flickering light of hope for western civilization.

You can get up to speed with the social media landscape, and you can buy enough resources and manpower to make sure that hands are ready at the keyboards. But if the person in control doesn’t have the playbook (Cooks Source), or if you’re a publicly traded company that has to wait for a dessicated board of directors and their cadre of lawyers to tell you what the right thing to say is (BP), all your prep isn’t going to forestall a hijacking. And you know what, maybe you deserve it. In fact, maybe “hijacking” is an unfairly pejorative term. Maybe your brand is undergoing a social media takeover.

The good news? If you’re BP, gas stations aren’t going to check how many people liked the “Boycott BP” page on Facebook before they make their next order.