It would be funny if it wasn’t so shameful. Microsoft’s fragrant PR team for XBox360 has provided a classic illustration of the mantra that we always try to emphasise to clients – clumsy and inappropriate use of social media is worse than not using them at all.
In this instance, some clever PR type thought it would be a good idea to capitalise on the untimely death of Amy Winehouse. So they posted a message on Twitter exhorting people to “remember Amy” by buying her music from Microsoft’s Zune online store. One of the key benefits to businesses in using social media is that you make yourself part of a community and can convey a sense of character. This tweet was a disaster because:
- It portrayed Microsoft as greedy, opportunistic and insensitive (while that’s possibly no surprise to most people, reminding us of it so effectively is almost certainly not what the PR people are being paid for).
- It was crass and inappropriate in the context of Twitter. People use Twitter to give and receive news and information and to share comments and observations. Clumsy sales pitches, especially ones based on exploitation of misfortune, are discordant in that environment. The rule of thumb is “don’t sell at the party”, i.e. keep the communication appropriate to the context.
- When you make this kind of mistake in social media, there is nowhere to hide, and word spreads fast. I did a Google search just now (see the screenshot). That showed 9.4 million references on the Web (within two days of the incident), most of them mentioning that Microsoft has been forced to apologise. That’s a lot of bad publicity in a very short time, all from a single 140 character message.
This first mistake was bad enough. But then the very bright PR people at Microsoft panicked when they began to get the backlash. Yes, they thought they would make it all better by posting another Tweet conveying their sincerity and human warmth: “Apologies to everyone if our earlier Amy Winehouse ‘download’ tweet seemed purely commercially motivated. Far from the case, we assure you.” Well that’s OK then! The only good thing about that response is that it has given me more classic material for this case study. The message here is that when you get caught out on social media, you need to be serious about damage limitation and reputation recovery. That half-hearted and unconvincing tweet just reinforced the impression that these people are cynical and untrustworthy.
In this kind of situation, you need either ignore it so that the furore atrophies quickly (a risky strategy) or to tackle it head-on convincingly and effectively. In Microsoft’s position, I would have considered making a proper apology (not the weasel worded thing they issued) acknowledging that a mistake had been made and showing contrition. I’d also think about making some kind of gesture to show that I was serious about making good. That might have meant offering the downloads for free (and refunding those who had already bought), or making some kind of donation (maybe to a substance misuse charity). Anything that showed I was willing to take some pain rather than hope to get away with it via another 140 character message.
What they actually did – almost unbelievably – was to post a third cynical tweet: “With Amy W’s passing, the world has lost a huge talent. Our thoughts are with Amy’s family and friends at this very sad time“. Pure genius. You can see now why they got 9.4 million negative mentions in two days.
It may be that the Microsoft PR people were working on the principle that all publicity is good publicity. More likely, those responsible are now working through their contacts books to find new jobs. To be fair, we frequently come across PR agencies struggling to understand how to harness the immense power and potential of social media (even though their own promotional material generally suggests that they are actually brilliant masters of it) and to avoid making the most basic mistakes.
Compare and contrast with the iTunes store. They saw the commercial opportunity too, of course, and they posted a prominent “Remembering Amy” feature in their store encouraging people to buy the music. And yet, they suffered no opprobrium. The reason for that apparent inconsistency goes back to our theme of the right message in the right place. Visitors at the iTunes store are there to buy and expect the shop to be promoting certain products and to help them find topical material. In this case, you’re in the shop, not at a party, so the dynamics and expectations are quite different.
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An interesting story today regarding the unpleasantly narcissistic dating site BeautifulPeople.com which bills itself as “exclusively for beautiful people”. Loathsome as this outfit is, their latest stunt appears to demonstrate the power of online PR campaigns nowadays in generating web traffic and leads, something that is important to many of our clients.
The website owners (or, more likely, their PR agency) have issued a press release claiming that they were affected by the “Shrek virus” causing thousands of unattractive people to be allowed membership wrongly. They claim to have removed the unattractive members with a refund of membership fees for their trouble. I’m sure this outfit has legions of expensive lawyers on standby, so it would be dangerous of us to accuse them of having made up the whole thing. But, we find it hard to give any credence to the claims whatsoever. There is no record elsewhere of any “Shrek virus”. The name of this alleged virus is something of a clue. It is hard to imagine how this story could possibly be true.
Our friends at nakedsecurity have put the case succintly:
The website explains that it hasn’t needed to inform any computer security firms about the malware as it is being “investigated internally”, and a “former employee.. placed the virus before leaving the team” and “despite wreaking havoc with the application process, member privacy and security was never breached.”
Phew! So, lots of publicity for the website but nothing for current or future members to worry about then. How convenient!
Despite the total lack of credibility to the story, it has been picked up and covered online by serious news agencies such as The Guardian, The BBC, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and many others. A quick Google check shows there are 5.9 million links and references to this ludicrous story on the Web, all achieved in hours by spreading a stupid press release! Not bad at all for a day’s work.
Yes, it’s pretty depressing that so many journalists at so many leading institutions can be so ignorant, gullible, or lazy as to give this implausible and shameless plug the time of day. However, this failing of humanity does show the power of clever PR.
We’re not suggesting that you suppress your gag reflex and descend to the same level as these people. But, with a bit of imagination, many firms will be able to generate interesting (and ideally even true) press releases which can be expected to get decent coverage in the local, regional, national, and trade press. The cost of a press release is hugely lower than advertising, and can be much more effective at generating leads. Nowadays a press release can be submitted easily and cheaply to multiple online channels. Distributing even a fairly uninspiring article containing relevant key words will help a website’s performance in search engines such as Google, thus helping to attract visitors to the website. And if you are lucky or clever enough to hit the sweet spot and go “viral”, you will be inundated with links and visitors.
We always strongly recommend having a press release strategy for our online marketing clients, especially in this age of social networks. If you’d like to discuss how to create business through social and online marketing, give us a call on 0845 638 0700 or email Yvonne Conway or Kevin Holdridge and lets see what would work for your organisation.
Footnote: Don’t you just love karma? It seems that beautifulpeople.com have become the victim of their own “success”. They look to have paid more attention to coming up with their gimmick and distributing their press release than they did to managing their web hosting infrastructure. So, today instead of seeing the usual conceited home page, visitors today were presented with this altogether more satisfying error message. Beautiful!