Sunday, February 22, 2015

"Think Dirty. If you don't, they will."

One of my more memorable lessons from journalism school didn’t come from a book.  It was just seven words, uttered as a tip from one of my professors.

“Think dirty.  If you don’t, they will,” she advised.  The “they” in the tip were the readers, of course.

My professor provided this advice in the context of word choice and phrasing in our writing.  Her point was that it doesn’t matter whether the words we choose are the right ones, the accurate ones, if someone can make an obscene inference out of it, it was the wrong word choice.

That was then.  Today, any professional communicator has to be mindful of much more than newspaper readers taking words out of context, making them seem obscene, either seriously or as a joke.  Today, perceived obscenity is just the beginning.

“KKK Wednesdays” 

Just over a week ago, Krispy Kreme U.K. found itself in a bit of a Facebook jam when its store in Hull, England, posted to its Facebook page a promotion entitled, "KKK Wednesdays." 

In this case, the “KKK” was meant to stand for “Krispy Kreme Klub,”a sales promotion designed to recognize loyal customers at a group event.  Keep in mind, the people who came up with this “KKK” idea for a Wednesday, also came up with, “Colouring Tuesday,” and “Face Painting Thursday.”  Clearly, the American connotations of “KKK” were lost on them.

Still, you can imagine what came next.  The company felt the immediate backlash on social media, the post was taken down, but only after it gained wide notoriety on The Huffington Post and USA Today among other sites.

Time for a corporate apology: “We are aware of the Hull store’s unfortunate naming choice for its Club program, and we are truly sorry for any inconvenience or offense this misstep may have caused our fans,” said company PR manager Lafeea Watson.

In PR and marketing circles where this story was discussed some have argued that “KKK” does not carry the same resonance in the U.K. as it does in the U.S.   This may be true, but the Internet has changed that.  Because digital communications happen broadly and instantaneously around the globe, geographic ignorance has become less of an excuse.  The same is true on matters of intent.  Even in the absence of malicious intent, any organization or brand can find itself in a mess over word choice or graphics selection.  Just because you don’t mean to insult, doesn’t mean a number of people won’t use social media to say you offended them.

Papa John’s Does Not Deliver for Iggy Azalea 

Another recent example of not thinking before posting involves pizza chain Papa John’s and pop idol Iggy Azalea.  The key thing about this situation is that it did not involve specific word choice, or offending a group based on vulgarity, race, gender, sexual preference or social issue sensitivities.  Rather, the issue at the core of this one was privacy and a seeming inability on the part of Papa John’s social media team to anticipate consequences for its tone.

Ironically, when the pop singer wanted to raise her concerns over a perceived violation of her privacy, she took it publicly to Twitter.

Here is what is reported to have happened.  A Papa John’s pizza delivery person must have dropped off a pizza to Iggy Azalea.  In the course of that, the pizza shop and the driver must have required Azalea’s cell phone number.

A little while later, Azalea got a text message from a stranger, claiming to be a relative of the pizza delivery driver, and also claiming to be Azalea’s “number one fan,” and then requested a callback.

Rather than call that fan back, or reporting the incident to the local pizza shop, the company, or even local police, Azalea opted to post the text message to Twitter for her 4.2 million Twitter followers to see.

To make matters worse, the social media team at Papa John’s decided to acknowledge Azalea’s tweet with a little tongue-in-cheek humor.

Said @PapaJohns: “@iggyazalea #We should have known better.  Customer and employee privacy is important to us.  Please don’t #bounce us!”

The #bounce reference was to one of Azalea’s songs.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Azalea’s response.

“When an employee steels information it’s called a data breach….” and, “I want answers @papjohns why is customer confidentiality a joke to your company?”

The company ended up issuing a more serious response to ABC News later, saying, “Privacy of our customers and employees is extremely important to us.  Papa John’s has taken appropriate disciplinary action with regard to the employee involved.  We are reaching out directly to Ms. Azalea and hope to resolve this incident and make it right.”

The lesson after all of this is simply to think before you tweet or post.  You can’t expect a company, particularly a pizza chain, to have full control over the judgment of every delivery driver.  But you should expect much more from a social media function charged with managing the organization’s online reputation.

Keep in mind, there were no clear boundaries crossed by the Papa John’s social media team. They did not cross into the use of offensive language. They weren’t combative or defensive. What they were, however, was unserious when the topic had quickly turned serious.

There are no guidebooks for this.  The subject matter on social media and on the Internet changes minute to minute for any organization.  It’s important to think seriously about the implications of every statement, comment, tweet and post, even if the nature of that post in the end will be designed to be lighthearted and fun.  It’s all part of a professional process.

If my professor were here today, I can hear how she might update her advice. “Think offensive.  If you don’t, they will.”

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