With the ubiquity of social media — not just for individuals but for companies and other professional organizations — the pressure to make quick and timely posts has never felt stronger. But in the rush, mistakes occasionally happen that are, at best, a little sloppy and, at worst, downright embarrassing.
Sure, timeliness matters, but never as much as accuracy — and certainly nowhere near as much as avoiding insensitive, if accidental, messages.
Two recent high-profile social media and online gaffes have drawn attention to the need to practice smart posting. They highlight how important it is to stay abreast of the news, have flexibility in veering away from a predetermined posting schedule and never count your chickens before they’re hatched, timing-wise.
Don’t get too far into the future
People magazine took a chance recently that failed spectacularly, publishing an excited cover story both in print and on its website that declared “Betty White Turns 100!” The splashy feature published 17 days before what would’ve been the centennial of the beloved star of countless TV shows and movies — and three days before her death.
This kind of future-tripping would’ve been remarkably ill-advised had the story been about, well, anyone. The fact that White was a cultural icon only magnified the unfortunate and insensitive timing. Social media had a field day with People, bashing its poor judgment, declaring that People had jinxed White and generally taking the publishing company to task in ways both funny and angry.
It should be obvious not to get too far ahead of yourself when you’re touting a big event for a 99-year-old, but the lessons here apply to more subtle situations, too.
When planning a social media campaign, e-newsletter story or online feature, don’t let eagerness be the enemy. You can easily hedge your bet with some conditional language: “Our new product set to debut next week,” “CEO ready to celebrate 10 years with company,” “Governor expected at IPO announcement.”
Things change, product launches hit snags, executives find themselves embroiled in scandals at the worst possible time and guest dignitaries cancel at the last minute. If you’re publishing before the touted event actually happens, write the story as a future presumptive, couch the declaration with language that gives you an out — or hold off until it’s reality.
Otherwise, you risk falling into “Betty White Turns 100!” territory or the classic 1948 Chicago Daily Tribune headline that declared, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Outside of their control
With some social media and online gaffes, it’s reasonable to think that reasonable people could have predicted at least the possibility of getting burned. Other times, however, an organization can end up in a publicly awkward situation that it probably couldn’t have foreseen.
That was the case with another recent corporate snafu. Weber Inc. — the publicly traded maker of popular grills, operator of restaurants and publisher of cookbooks — had the misfortune of touting a meatloaf recipe in its weekly email blast on the day after the passing of the celebrity known as Meatloaf, just as news of his death was going viral around the world.
Musician and actor Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meatloaf, released what is still the fourth-best-selling album of all time, “Bat Out of Hell,” and was a star of the cult classic movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
While Weber suffered from bad luck rather than bad decisions — such as touting a very elderly celebrity’s birthday victory before she had reached it — it still had some PR cleanup work to do. Media outlets and social media critics took the company to task for the timing.
To its credit, as soon as the Weber realized the problem, it issued a widely disseminated apology to Aday’s family and fans, explained that it had not yet known of his passing, gave a nod to Meatloaf’s legend and acknowledged that the incident had caused distress or aggravation with many people.
Here are excerpts of its apology, an example of making the best of a bad situation:
“At the time we shared this recipe with you, we were not aware of the unfortunate passing of American singer and Actor Mr. Marvin Lee Aday, also known as Meat Loaf. We want to express our deepest apologies for this oversight and for any offense this email may have caused. … Though it was just not the right time to post a meatloaf recipe, this could be a good time to raise a glass or drop the needle on that time-worn album, and sink into “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
A reminder to keep a close watch
Each of these incidents is a reminder for organizations that their social media posts, newsletters, online updates and other communications do not exist in a vacuum. Those tasked with overseeing such communications must keep an eye on the news, not just in traditional media but in the robust world of social media news dissemination.
Awareness is critical, tone is key, and being able to “read the room” — divining what will and will not fly at a given time — is tantamount. For companies whose social media posts are automated on a regular cadence, these incidents remind us all that we need to be prepared to quickly take that function out of auto-updates and stop a post from happening or quickly take it down, and to issue an apology and explanation when necessary.
And, as with most things in life, sometimes timing is everything.