We tend to think of traditional companies — Papa John’s, Walmart, Hostess — facing crises driven by social media. Now we can dissect a social media company facing crisis driven by social media.
Instagram is not the first to reach this new frontier, and surely many will follow its blazed trail.
What happened is fairly straightforward. On Monday, Instagram announced changes to its advertising and member confidentiality policies, and also indicated that users’ private photos could be lifted into Instagram and maybe even outside advertisements.
The outcry was immediate and one-sided. You have to ask why people smart enough to create Instagram and sell it to Facebook could not foresee such an adverse reaction. More than likely, they did see the negative reaction, but figured they could either bull their way through it, or they minimized the level of furor. Self-delusion is not unique to traditional corporations.
Nonetheless, three days later, Instagram reversed itself. This is a crucial point in crisis management.
There’s no place for stubbornness in a crisis. No one wants to see headlines saying Instagram did an “about-face.” That implies cowardess, stupidity and confused thinking. But that should never loom larger or more formidable than correcting the root error.
Politicians are notorious for saying a mistake is not a mistake, even though everyone else sees it for what it is. It’s human nature to want to blame others or circumstances for our own bad decisions. The only way to end a crisis, especially one you generated by making faulty decisions, is to accept responsibility, reverse course if that’s an option — ‘study’ the matter further, as Instagram says it will — and apologize if you need to.
But wait, you’re the military type, the hardass, the CEgO. You think toughing it out will wear down the opposition and you’ll eventually get your way. [Hey, it’s always worked in the past, right?] Even if the end result is laudatory or profitable, forcing the issue could kill your golden goose. That’s the issue with Instagram.
The company billed itself as a cheap, fast, effective way to store and share photographs. Having signed up millions of people under those terms, it cannot morph into little more than an opportunistic content thief. It would be like GM selling cars, but not servicing them; or an airline only offering one-way flights so you can’t get home; or a supermarket luring you in with sale prices and then not having the items in the store.
It’s disingenuous and Instagram felt the anger. People were erasing Instagram apps from iPhones by the thousands. But to its credit, the company’s leaders — co-founder Kevin Systrom’s blog post actually announced the retraction — realized and accepted their mistake and made amends.
Americans will forgive a stupid mistake — as long as they trust your admission that it was a stupid mistake.
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.