Should Brands Talk Back On Social Media?

As all PR and social media pros know, a brand’s digital presence is both very powerful and very fragile. In the attention economy, we want to break though and engage customers, and a good way to do that is by showing personality. A flippant attitude or a risky tweet can take a brand even further. Social platforms are made for snark, right? Just look at Wendy’s. The fast-food brand is famous for its sassy social media voice, and what’s more, its strategy has won it praise and coverage in mainstream media.

But research shows that consumers don’t always welcome social snark from brands. Social media company Sprout Social surveyed 1,003 consumers on what they really want from brands on social media. It found that “snarkiness” was the least desired trait, with 67 percent of respondents saying it’s undesirable. According to Sprout Content Director Lizz Kannenberg, “Consumers follow brands on social for entertainment, answers to their questions and for contests and promotions.” Not a cheeky retort.

But from a public relations perspective, brands that master the art of social wisecracks can reap a PR bonanza. So, when should a brand talk back? It turns out there’s enormous variability in how far a little irreverence can go, and much depends on the individual situation. Here’s what we can learn from the most successful social brands.

Know your audience 

An irreverent social media persona is like wading into controversy; you can do it if you understand your base. There’s a good reason why a company like Patagonia can criticize the president without fear of social retribution. Its leadership knows that their loyal customers are vehemently opposed to Trump on climate issues. Conversely, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A was candid about his opposition to marriage equality when asked about the issue. The stance sparked boycotts, but it probably didn’t harm the business, because brand loyalists rallied to its support. A social media voice is an extension of a brand’s persona, and knowing your customers is an unerring guide. No such brand decision or position should be made purely for publicity purposes.

Be reliable

Look at Thrillist, the men’s digital lifestyle newsletter. Its Facebook page is a celebration of bro culture, with silly and occasionally juvenile humor. The master in this arena just might be Taco Bell. For years, it has earned a spot on the list of the sauciest and most entertaining brands on the social web. The core customer is a young male, making it a good bet to post occasionallly risky content, and the brand delivers. From the taco emoji to its Tacobot Slack integration (that’s right, taco ordering from a snappy Slack friend is now in beta) the brand is not only cheeky, but reliably innovative.

Punch above your weight

T-Mobile CEO John Legere is a great example of shrewd strategy here. His “bad-boy schtick” on social media is well suited to his flamboyant and iconoclastic personality, of course. And when Legere tweaks the big-brand competition, it’s a fairly low-risk move.  T-Mobile, whose subscriber base is roughly half the size of its two largest competitors, has very little to lose by courting controversy. Picking a fight with a Goliath competitor is a time-tested strategy with a large upside – it generates plenty of attention – and very little risk. It’s a smart play.

Use humor

This goes without saying, but it works particularly well when it’s unexpected. We expect humor from Charmin, but who could have predicted that the venerable Merriam Webster would gain social fame in 2017 for its sly subtweets?

Back it up

Wendy’s reputation for social attitude has earned plaudits, but the brand has done more than just show personality. It creates social initiatives with “meat” that pack more momentum than simple posts.

Remember Carter Wilkerson, the teenager who tweeted a request for free chicken nuggets in May? Wendy’s could have tweeted a tart response, or simply accommodated Wilkerson with coupons to earn some Twitter love. Instead, it challenged the 16-year-old to earn 18,000 retweets of his request, setting off a user-driven social media campaign that drew over 3 million RTs, surpassing the record set by the 2014 Oscar selfie. The story naturally whetted the appetite of many “mainstream” media, who ate up the quirky challenge. Even though Wilkerson fell short of the goal, Wendy’s gave him a year’s worth of free nuggets, and to add substance to the contest, it pledged $100,000 to the Dave Thomas Foundation in the bargain. Well done.

Be real

We were startled when Delta punched back at conservative pundit Ann Coulter, but it was an unusual situation that probably did call for a tart rejoinder. As the world knows, Coulter was infuriated when her assigned seat on a flight from Laguardia to Palm Beach was given to someone else. She raged at the airline to her 1.6 million Twitter followers for two days after the flight, even tweeting a picture of the blameless passengers who were given the seat she had reserved. Given the rough PR weather that airlines handle, you might have thought Delta would apologize and lie low. It did offer Coulter a refund of the $30 she paid for the better seat. But when the nasty tweet barrage continued, Delta returned fire, calling Coulter’s comments “unnecessary and unacceptable.” As one headline blared, “Ann Coulter Is So Awful, She Makes Delta Airlines Look Good.”

PR Disaster Averted: 7 Cases of Good Crisis Management

PR agency pundits and brand watchers love to create “best and worst” lists around marketing and communications developments.  The emphasis usually falls on the “worsts” – like the most badly handled crisis situations, mangled cover-ups, or PR stunts that backfired.

It’s easy to criticize, but what about giving credit for crises averted or PR battles won?  That list is shorter and far less obvious, but here are my nominations.

JC Penney. Penney’s reputation has been worn down in the past year. First, it was outed by The New York Times for “black hat” SEO practices last January. Then, it suffered a visual identity crisis leading up to the announcement of a bold new pricing strategy. Just as it built positive momentum for the “new” JCP, advocacy group One Million Moms threatened a store boycott over its choice of spokesperson Ellen DeGeneres. Rather than try to appease critics, the company stood by Ellen….and, in a brilliant move, it escaped the Lowe’s trap by letting her do most of the talking. Penney’s was betting that Ellen was far more popular than One Million Moms, and it was right. Ellen’s explanation of her “traditional values” is a PR home run. The boycott ended faster than a flash sale.

Planned Parenthood (PP). Most of the coverage of the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle focused on Komen’s lack of preparedness for the public reaction after it dropped PP from its grants program. But Planned Parenthood mounted a first-class response to the potential crisis. After offering an exclusive interview to the AP, it let loose a barrage of news releases and launched a social media campaign to mobilize fans.  Its core strategy was simple; as spokesperson Tait Sye explained, “We gave people things to do.” PP circulated online petitions, shared tweets, posted comments, and launched a no-holds-barred media tour by telegenic CEO Cecile Richards. The public pressure forced SGK to backpedal within the week.

Taco Bell. A year ago, the fast-food chain was the target of a customer lawsuit that served up a potential PR disaster for its brand. A California woman smacked Taco Bell with deceptive marketing claims, saying its tacos have far less beef than advertised. Taco Bell wasted no time in firing back.  The chain went on the offense, big time. It filed a countersuit, posted a video statement from the CEO, and dished out a saucy media campaign featuring the headline “Thank You for Suing Us!” The customer’s beef, and her lawsuit, were quietly dropped, ensuring Taco Bell a place in the annals of crisis management. Well done.

The Red Cross. It was only a rogue tweet, so the risk faced by The American Red Cross last year may not rise to the level of reputation crisis. But its handling of a staffer’s Twitter post about a beer party was a nice example of a measured response. After realizing the employee confused a personal account with a corporate one and shared plans for “gettingslizzerd” on @RedCross, the tweet was quickly deleted. Yet, importantly, it wasn’t ignored. The Red Cross used a light touch, noting, “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” Best of all, @DogfishBeer joined the fun by encouraging donations, and appropriate replenishment.

Justin Bieber. Oh, baby, what a mess this could have been. When the teen pop star was hit with a paternity suit from a fan who claimed Justin fathered her child, he recognized the risk to his popstar image.  Guided by PR rep Matthew Hiltzik, Bieber delivered an unequivocal denial on The Today Show. Team Bieber then went one better by filing a countersuit and taking a paternity test to prove he was no baby daddy. His comment?  “I know that I’m going to be a target, but I’m never going to be a victim,” hit the right notes. Well played.

o.b. Talk about facing the music. The J & J tampon brand was threatened with a “girlcott” by angry users after it discontinued its popular Ultra item. The customer backlash threatened to take over its reputation, until o.b. defused the situation with a unique response. Its apology PR campaign included a hilarious video that used personalization technology to woo back customers. “Triple Sorry” was a sublime send-up of an uber-schmaltzy music video, complete with rainbows and rose petals and a vow to bring back the product. It was a pitch-perfect response to a potential crisis with double credit to Canada for a downloadable product coupon.

Newt Gingrich. He’s known for flying by the seat of his pants, but the Speaker showed real PR savvy when he needed it most, just before the high-stakes South Carolina primary. His ex-wife’s ABC interview where she claimed he asked her for an “open marriage” could have dealt his campaign a death blow. But when CNN’s John King raised it at the start of the live debate, Gingrich was ready. He denied the story, but not before exploding in indignation and casting the media as the true guilty party. It may not be enough to save his candidacy, but it was a sound strategy that let Gingrich rally his base against that classic GOP enemy – the media.

This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on MENGBlend.

How To Turn Bad Publicity Into Good PR

There are those who think any PR is good PR, but let’s face it, sometimes it’s just plain bad.

Faced with withering reviews for its plan to separate its DVD and streaming businesses into two distinct units, Netflix has canceled Qwikster. This latest plot twist is a bit reminiscent of Gap’s unveiling of that infamous new logo. The negative buzz forced it to backpedal and eventually restore the original, iconic identity. Though at first it seemed like a miss for Gap, many brand-watchers think it made the brand more relevant than it had been in a long while.

Netflix doesn’t suffer from lack of currency, and it’s a bit early to tell if it can woo back irate customers. (If Reed Hastings’ recent New York Times magazine interview is any indication, I’d say they still have some work to do.) But bad publicity can, paradoxically, wake up a brand’s loyalists. And there are ways to turn a PR failure into a net gain. Here are a few techniques that helped companies turn around embarrassing mistakes.

Apologize. If offense has been given or customer safety or satisfaction threatened, a prompt apology is necessary. And it shouldn’t be drafted by lawyers. To have teeth, a mea culpa should be swift and sincere, and it should take responsibility. One of my favorite public apologies is the widely viewed video of Domino’s Pizza President Patrick Doyle after the employee stunt that made us all lose our appetites in 2009. Doyle, and the Domino’s brand, had an advantage as the victim of a disgusting hoax. But as brand crises go, the stakes were pretty high, and the company delivered in a way that helped feed our natural sympathy.

The mistake Netflix made, by contrast, was in wrapping a half-hearted mea culpa with additional news that was bound to anger customers. Not good.

Fix the problem. Better yet, be part of a larger solution. The classic lemons-to-lemonade strategy after a misstep is to be part of the fix for everyone. Mattel set a new standard when it announced enhanced product inspection and supplier audits following massive product recalls of toys made in China. JetBlue also raised the airline industry bar with its “Passenger Bill of  Rights,” a kind of flight plan to prevent incidents like the one that buffeted its reputation on Valentine’s Day 2008.

Share your learnings. Office Depot, a client of my former firm, took advantage of its own experience weathering successive hurricanes at its Delray Beach, Florida headquarters over a period of years. It turned adversity to advantage with a PR campaign that focused on disaster preparation and management for small businesses, – a key customer segment.

Stay the course. Sometimes, despite a public rush to judgment, a brand is right. Royal Caribbean opted to keep on going, even in the face of annihalating coverage, after its luxury cruise liner resumed calls at Labadee, Haiti shortly after the earthquake. It was undoubtedly a tough call, but most experts and passengers agree that supporting survivors with both supplies and commerce was the right move.

Fight back. That’s what Taco Bell did when it was slapped with a lawsuit by a customer who had a beef with the meat content of its tacos. It jumped into the food fight, threatening a countersuit, and launching a response through executive videos, a statement on its website, and a major market ad campaign about ingredient quality. The customer suit was quietly dropped.

Make good. Sometimes it’s better to pay – financial penalties, customer retribution, or legal settlement – to protect a brand’s reputation. For many companies, this also comes down to empowering retail or ground-level employees to spot and nip problems in the bud. If a Delta attendant had been able to waive excess luggage fees for returning U.S. veterans, the airline could have saved itself loads of bad reputation baggage after the servicemen took their complaints to YouTube.

"Thanks For Suing Us!" Taco Bell Takes On "Beef-Gate"

A California woman’s beef with Taco Bell over the ingredients in her taco served up an interesting crisis management case study last week. The food fight has turned into a class-action lawsuit alleging false advertising by the chain. The suit claims its tacos are only 36 percent beef, which, if true, means they wouldn’t even qualify as beef under USDA regulations.

As usual, social media helped turn the suit into a blogosphere feeding frenzy. A supremely unappetizing photo of something called “taco meat filling” spiced up some of the negative posts, and online commentary was heated. Stephen Colbert launched a frankly hilarious mock defense of the chain that called its key ingredient “beef adjacent.”

(Best PR hijack may be from PETA, which put out a tongue-in-cheek statement congratulating Taco Bell on moving away from meat, and urging it to go “100 percent cruelty-free.”)

The news made for juicy copy, but the risk is more serious than a reputation ding. According to MediaPost, in the week since the beef suit was filed, the chain’s BrandIndex perception score among adult fast-food customers has fallen from 25.2 to 11.7. That’s a hefty drop.

But the chain mobilized fairly quickly to bite back. It launched into a drill that’s unfortunately become a standard recipe for QSR crisis response. But this feedback had real attitude. Full-page newspaper ads signed by president and “chief concept officer” Greg Creed denied the tacos are mostly filler. “Thank you for suing us,” sneered the giant headline. Saucy! The chain also threatened a countersuit and put Creed on the hot seat in a series of major media interviews.

Social media was also on the crisis management menu. Taco Bell’s Facebook wall features frequent postings about the situation, including the (arguably) unflattering Colbert parody and some very mixed commentary by fans. Creed took his case to YouTube with a folksy, but impassioned, video statement. He looked friendly and at ease explaining that its tacos are actually 88 percent beef, and that the remaining 12 percent is water, seasonings, and a longish list of other ingredients like silicon dioxide and “isolated oat product.”

But, when asked about “isolated oat product” by ABC News, Creed admitted he didn’t know what it is, but assured us that “it’s there for a purpose.” I’d argue that the guy in charge should be able to answer that question, and even be able to whip up a taco on-air to show how it’s done. (This is the “Undercover Boss” era, after all.) In the ideal world, the company would be able to produce a “Chief Yum Officer” who could credibly speak to its recipe, while leaving out technical jargon.

But I think the chain knows its core customers, and its response was cooked up for them. Hence, the cheeky tone of the ads, and the CEO’s casual admission that he’s not a food scientist. If it loses the suit, it will lose credibility, of course. But, despite quibbles on tactics, the tone of its communications seemed to hit the spot… not unlike a 99-cent taco.