The destructive power of “one” social media mistake and whether an apology can fix it


Certainly it’s not hard to generate some empathy for KitchenAid‘s executives, which this week found themselves put through one of its own high-powered mixers over the actions of one insensitive employee Tweeter.

As we’ve discussed and addressed several times over the last year, never before in the history of American corporations could an individual, especially such a lowly one, have the power to initiate a crisis that brings a company to its knees and causes catastrophic effects on its bottom line.

You probably heard about the Mixmaster mess in the wake of Wednesday’s first Romney-Obama debate.

During the presidential waltz, Obama credited his grandmother for helping raise him. She died three days before his election.

Moments later, @KitchenAidUSA, the company’s official Twitter account, sent this:

“Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president’.”

Ouch.

One person, obviously high enough to have direct access to KitchenAid’s Twitter feed on a Wednesday evening, no longer has that access and likely no longer has a job at KitchenAid. And shouldn’t we as observers and consumers and crisis managers realize that this was indeed the stupid actions of one individual and not hold the entire company responsible?

Well, yes and no. On a logical level, sure, we get it. One person screwed up.

But on a more social media/perception level, where most major brands started playing years ago, we blame KitchenAid. Brands now ask us to “like” them, follow them, endorse every burble and bleep that comes from them and generally wallow in their brand essence like lavender in a spring field. The closer relationship cuts both ways. When the company screws up, in a social media context, we tend to take it more personally than we once did.

That’s essentially the social media contract brands enter in to. Think about it. Out of the toaster oven and into the fire.

What did the company do?

The subsidiary of Whirlpool Corp. jumped on the Tweet, deleted it and posted apologies on Twitter and other social networks. From its Facebook page:

“Hello, everyone. My name is Cynthia Soledad, and I am the head of the KitchenAid brand. I would like to personally apologize to President Barack Obama, his family and everyone on Twitter for the offensive tweet sent earlier. It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won’t be tweeting for us anymore. That said, I take full responsibility for my team. Thank you for hearing me out.”

Smart, clear, fast. Took responsibility. Apologized. All good. Textbook.

Yet do we assign guilt by association? Do we magnify the actions of one person into an indictment of a corporate culture? Surely some people will. Just as Chick-fil-a endured a crisis this summer about its religious-based corporate culture and gay marriage. Just as the skirmish on Twitter between Oreo and AMC showed. One person, armed and emboldened by social media norms, can stagger a company and diminish a brand built over generations.

We can imagine someone’s Tweet accusing the Maytag repairman — who, after all, is not even real — of some vile failure and watching that brand position turn to quicksand. It’s all so strange.

But that’s the world we live in. A crisis can strike at any time, initiated by anyone associated with your company, and you must act instantaneously to block it. And even then you may still take a hit.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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