Back in the bad old days, before the internet, before instantly available website updates, before a billion Facebook accounts and more people on Twitter than live in Europe and the USA combined, a story moved at the speed of the slowest part in the chain from event – observer – journalist – printing press – newsstand – customer. A story followed a predictable, predetermined path – and one that could be controlled or mitigated.
Now, you can press a button, wiggle a mouse and your corporate message, sales offer or story is blasting its way to the far corners of the world at literal light-speed through fibre-optic undersea cables and bouncing its way from satellite to satellite and appearing on a million phones, computers and iDevices around the world via technology that is indistinguishable from magic.
Only… the message isn’t the only thing that moves at the speed of light. Just like Spanish Flu, the Black Death and Gangnam Style, things go viral. People are so instantly, instinctively interconnected now that stories burst into life and go global before fading back away into nothing.
A crisis can still be exactly the same event, misunderstanding or incident as might have occurred fifty years ago – but the ripples in the pond spread out faster and further than society ever thought possible. And this in itself adds an entirely new flavour of potential crisis into the mix, the social media gaffe. It is, if you will, an entirely new kind of ‘banana skin’ to drop and slip over on.
Take a recent example, the British beautician from Blackpool who Tweeted without stopping to check her facts or spelling before beaming out the message “why is our president Barraco Barner getting involved with Russia, scary.” She briefly revelled in her internet fame, before it became infamy and she was mocked and abused and featured in papers around the world. A crisis that wasn’t even a crisis, and couldn’t have been before the internet, became a terribly embarrassing incident for a young girl who will now know better.
This isn’t unique to individuals, either. MasterCard, title sponsor of the BRIT awards, had a similar experience. MasterCard PR agency issued a briefing document to journalists who had received accreditation to the glitzy awards do, with some suggested Tweets and mentions of the event (and naturally pushing the message of the title sponsor).
Only… some slightly ambiguous wording could be interpreted to mean that this list of corporate messages was, in fact, a condition of accepting the tickets. One Journalist, @TimWalker is notoriously acerbic and just loves to sink his teeth into a good bad story. He Tweeted the list of requirements and the word spread to other journalists that MasterCard were making demands for tickets. Journalists being journalists, of course, didn’t like this slight to their integrity. And the internet being the internet, the story began to gather momentum.
MasterCard's agency didn’t publically comment on a volatile situation as it was developing (a risky strategy, but it can pay off) and it became something of a feeding frenzy both for journalists covering the event, and even those who weren’t (it didn’t pay off). They even cancelled the car and accreditation for the journalist who first broke the story to the BRITS, thereby confirming the situation in his views.
The Twitter-sphere exploded, with canny commenters hijacking the MasterCard hashtag #priceless surprises and turning it back on their masters. With retorts like “Trying to force hacks to tweet about MasterCard to get Brits accreditation & getting turned over? That's one of those #PricelessSurprises” blasting into the press, what should have been the credit card giant’s biggest night of the year became a bit embarrassing. Journalists, as well as unconnected PR types all gleefully helped pump the story up and keep it going until it broke on all the major news websites and online papers.
Eventually, the biggest story about the BRITs wasn’t the BRITs and MasterCard ended up distancing themselves from the policy and the agency in the press. A simple miscommunication got blown out of proportion, and the crisis management strategy the PR team chose didn’t seem to help.
There are some that think this example perhaps backs up the claim that no publicity is bad publicity, and it is true that MasterCard has probably never had so many mentions in association with the BRITS throughout its sponsorship!
However, the point we are making is that this can happen to literally anyone, if somebody takes umbrage to something as simple as a mis-wording, and they find an audience willing to share the story.
As Homer Simpson once famously exclaimed to Mr Burns: “The Chinese have the same word for crisis as opportunity: crisatunity!” Well, the truth is that the two are different sides of the same coin. Any given opportunity could become a crisis at the speed of the fastest means of communication available, while any crisis is an opportunity to, well, stop that crisis – and rebuild or even improve on your reputation and image. Perhaps there was a chance for MasterCard to turn some fairly vitriolic criticism into an opportunity to capitalise on all the attention they were garnering.
ARTICLE BY KHAL HARRIS
Digital Strategist, tech fan and cheese afficionado
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