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When Social Media Bites Back

[By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications]

Indiana Republicans have learned that social media is not as easy as it sometimes looks.  We suspect the individual who came up with the idea of generating support for healthcare reform by soliciting criticism of Obamacare on Facebook has spent some time in the woodshed as a result of this ill-conceived campaign strategy.

As various news outlets have reported, the Indiana Republican Party’s attempt to surface “Obamacare Horror Stories” backfired hugely, prompting a flood of testimonials about ACA insurance providing treatment for conditions not previously covered.  Within two days, the post soliciting the horror stories had elicited 7,500 comments and been shared 5,400 times – most commenting in favor of the ACA. Republicans countered by noting that the campaign had been hijacked by Democratic Party affiliates and that most Hoosiers want Obamacare repealed.

That position may be borne out by the party’s research, but didn’t anybody think this might happen when the social media team dreamed this up?

Some quick online research might have helped.  A simple Google search of “social media campaigns that failed” returns at least 29 pages of stories about organizations that miscalculated the loyalty of their followers and overlooked the skeletons hiding in their corporate closets.  There are more examples of big-time fails than one can justify reading – even if social media research is your official job.

For instance, if Indiana’s Republican State Party staffers had bothered to look, they might have run across this Twitter campaign, launched by the New York City Police Department, encouraging followers to tweet and tag photos of New Yorkers engaging with the City’s finest using the hashtag #myNYPD. Instead of civilians capturing friendly encounters with officers, posters shared photos of individuals being roughly detained, threatened with violence and other less than desirable images.

An older, but now legendary miscalculation comes up regarding this attempt by JPMorgan Chase to host a Twitter Q&A with its vice chairman designed to engage young graduates looking for a career in the financial industry.  Wits and wags quickly hijacked the event to provide sarcastic commentary on the faults of big banking – not the audience the company hoped to attract. (For a thoughtful analysis of the perils embedded in social media and the rules of the road that JPMorgan ignored, read this piece from The New Yorker.)

The lesson from all these examples:  Social media engagement can be a high-risk undertaking and campaigns designed to win friends and buttress brands deserve careful vetting before they are launched.  Some questions to ask might include:

How do people currently view our brand?  Do we have a reservoir of good will with the marketplace or have we failed to deliver on our brand promise?  Are we vulnerable to criticism for things we have done, or things we have not done?

Have we been in the spotlight for mistreating employees, customers, vendors, neighbors or the environment?  Does our record of corporate social responsibility stand up to the glare of a bright light?  Have we apologized for past mistakes and have we established a record showing that we’ve changed? Is there enough distance between our past mistakes and this initiative to allow it to succeed?

Is our business in a category under siege by regulators, activists, the media or mothers of young children?  Even if we’re innocent of the category’s sins, do we want to raise our profile right now?

Is this initiative a true reflection of our brand, or are we trying to be something we’re not?  Is this effort sincere, or simply an attempt to camouflage who we really are?

Is this an effort to deflect criticism or draw attention away from a legitimate issue associated with our brand?  Are we trying to use the “bright shiny object” strategy to shift the narrative?

Do we have known critics or adversaries?  Are they savvy social media users?

If these questions make you hesitate, you may want to rethink your strategy.  Better to subject your concept to some sincere soul-searching before you create that hashtag than to join the ranks of the epic social media fails that live forever thanks to Google Search.

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Nora Jacobs is vice president of Hennes Communications, one of the few firms in the U.S. focused exclusively on crisis management and communications.

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