Over this three-part blog series, I've spent most of my time pointing out those journalists who use social media as a personal soapbox. As a former reporter, it feels very odd to be writing a commentary on the fact that journalists should not be doing commentaries on air or on social media.
Some journalists have stolen the spotlight and tarnished their reputation with a single opinionated tweet. Luckily for the companies these reporters work for, the tweets and comments often reflect poorly on the journalist themselves, not the outlet. On the flip side, when PR pro slips up and says the wrong thing on behalf of a company on social media, it can cause a firestorm of controversy and crisis that can sometimes be irreparable.
When an angry employee took to KitchenAid's Twitter account on October 3 and made offensive comments about President Barack Obama's late grandmother, it sent the company into a flurry of damage control. In the hours following the tweet, KitchenAid continuously updated its Twitter account, apologizing profusely and reassuring followers that the erroneous tweet was not in line with the company's beliefs.
Another not-so-fine example comes from Kmart, who tweeted about the Newtown, CT, shooting during a promo event for its holiday sales. The tasteless tweet read: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this terrible tragedy. #PrayforNewtown #CTShooting #Fab15Toys.” While the company was in the middle of an event that utilized the “#Fab15Toys” hashtag, it was still a poor choice from an uninformed PR professional.
Dozens of other companies have fallen victim to these types of rookie social media mistakes. As professionals in the communication industry, we must be responsible for creating output that results in positive consumer engagement. Kenneth Cole should not be comparing riots in Cairo to people's excitement over their new spring collection. The social media pro who tweeted F-bombs on the Chrysler page over Detroit traffic should not have had access to the account in the first place.
My advice to avoid controversy is to stay up-to-date. Read the news every morning when you get to work and continue throughout your day so that you can avoid anything unintentionally offensive. Put aside any sales or marketing strategy when tweeting about a tragedy of any kind. Be careful about commenting on anything political unless you are prepared to address those who disagree with you.
Even though this may fly in the face of what we are taught as PR pros, when it comes to tragedies and controversial topics, if you don't feel like you need to be a part of the conversation...don't. It's often better to stay silent than to walk the thin line between sympathy and backlash.
Lisa Arledge Powell is the president of MediaSource, a multimedia production and media relations company that works with hospitals, healthcare organizations, and other brands.