Have you ever put your best foot forward only to discover that instead of everyone loving your work you’ve triggered a rash of criticism? It happens, and with social media the critics have a bigger soap box than ever before. Some people say any press is good press, but that’s only if you make it so. Here’s what to do if you find yourself or your brand in this uncomfortable predicament.
Years ago a technology company I worked for launched a highly successful ad campaign that featured a photo of a funny, wild-eyed, goofy guy in a straight jacket standing in a computer network wiring closet. The headline said, “Does certifying your network make you certifiable?” If you don’t know what certifying a network is, don’t worry. That’s not important. Think of it like a plumber joke, and just accept that the target audience of network administrators thought this play on words was hilarious. The organization who protected the rights of the mentally ill didn’t think it was quite so funny, though. The ad continued to run.
Another time, the same company ran some ads that featured a very cute golden retriever sitting and “smiling” as that breed often does. When the ad ran, the company got letters from cat lovers asking, “Why are there no cats in our ads?” The product automatically retrieved information from a network. Since cats don’t generally retrieve things, it didn’t make sense to have cats in the ad. The ad continued to run.
Yoplait just got slapped because they ran a commercial that showed a woman standing in front of her fridge debating whether or not she should eat a piece of calorie-laden cheesecake. Her roommate walks in, grabs the cheesecake flavored Yoplait yogurt from the fridge and satisfies her sweet tooth. People are up in arms because they say this ad promotes and encourages eating disorders. Yoplait pulled the commercial.
My point with these three examples is that no matter what a company puts out there, there will be critics and there will be people who don’t like it. But today, moreso than in decades past, those one or two voices can turn into multitudes and fast. In the first two examples, the complaints came in the form of letters. The company contacted the persons by phone, explained that offending them wasn’t their intent, carried on a reasonable and respectful conversation, and all was fine. Case closed.
Today, of course, the criticism comes publically, usually via social media. It gets forwarded and others pile on until it becomes a tidal wave. Worse yet, get the TV talking heads on the bandwagon–you know the ones who have built their careers and their financial empires on throwing others to the wolves–and you have the makings of a PR nightmare. So what do you do?
Before revealing the “How-to’s” allow me to say, if you have truly done something stupid, like Anthony Weiner, the latest addition to team Gingrich, Woods, Favre, Edwards and Scwartzeneger, then you should take your ‘lumps like a man’. That’s shorthand for: apologizing at a press conference, claiming you have an illness, going into rehab and paying restitution through an exclusive inteview on 20/20. That’s the protocol.
But what about the rest of us? The companies and people that didn’t do something stupid and didn’t intend to anger that one person out there with 5,000 followers? I wish I could tell you what to do in six easy steps. But there is nothing easy about this. The how-to is hard. It’s why you earn the big bucks. So here we go:
1. Stop it before it starts – Before putting any messages or images out there…test, test, test and don’t dismiss the results or even the one or two people who raise a flag. If five people in a sample of 100 have a problem, others will too. Do the math; the numbers get big.
2. Lose the ego – Don’t be above modifying how you say what you want to say. There are so many ways to get a message across. Keep working if the one you’re in love with clearly has a problem. You’ll find a better solution, one that speaks meaningfully to the heart as opposed to the one that is just clever or edgy.
3. Stay aware – Monitor social media and be prepared to reply publically and empathetically to people who are angered. Have your response ready and don’t blabber on in corporate speak. That just makes people more angry. Speak from the heart and have a productive conversation, person-to-person.
4. Recognize a problem – Know the difference between an angry person or two and a growing movement. If a person posts a comment and ten people jump on immediately or within a few hours, you may have a problem. Deal with it, do not ignore it hoping it will just go away. If a person posts and there are no additional comments, it is likely just an isolated problem. Be human and respond empathetically to that one person. That’s just being respectful.
5. Don’t be a “Weiner” – Be prompt with all this and never lie or make excuses. That throws you and your company into the ranks of our illustrious political leaders and sports heroes mentioned above. Make them cautionary tales, not role models.
6. Take decisive action – Finally, be prepared to admit your mistake and take action even if it means pulling the plug. Also be prepared to do more than simply cease and desist. Understand that in every mistake is an opportunity to turn it around, come out better than you went in, and be an instrument of positive change.
Dealing with these kinds of issues is never easy. You can avoid them by putting others first, above your ego, and above that promotion you’re vying for. Once again, it comes down to heart and mind, and enveloping the business objectives in the heart of the brand. The pressures of achieving business results cannot override what’s right, or they will elude you. Remember your results are not the goal, they are the reward for doing what is right.