I was getting worried for a moment there. It had been ages and ages since we’d enjoyed a public Twitter brand meltdown. The heady days of the dodgy Durex jokes are but a hazy memory. The latest batch doesn’t involve big brands, but both cases illustrate the pitfalls of social media very nicely.
The ultimate admission of social media failure is deleting your account, and that’s what Cumtree South Africa did. In early August, Jen Thorpe wrote this piece on adult classifieds site Cumtree after being asked to tweet a link to it (social media fail no 1: asking for retweets of a controversial offering can backfire, as it did here).
Thorpe is probably South Africa’s most vocal young feminist, certainly in social media, and her criticisms were perfectly valid. She didn’t denounce the premise of Cumtree, simply pointed out that nobody seemed to be wearing a condom amongst other concerns. Cumtree’s terribly mature responses included: “Oooo, I better Photoshop a condom on all the images of penises, just to be safe.” (Social media fail no 2: respond to criticism with aggression and sarcasm.)
In the comments section on the piece, Cumtree came back with a “bra-burning” jibe (social media fail no 3: come up with unoriginal, unfunny insults.) Later they extended the bra theme with an update to their Twitter bio, inviting their followers to contact Thorpe to “let her know what you want to do to her”:
(Social media fail no 4: bully a critic. Social media fail no 5: bully a critic with implied sexual harassment during Women’s Month in a country in which gender-based violence is a huge problem. Social media fail no 6: do this publically, for everyone to see.)
Thorpe asked her supporters to take screenshots and declared she would be taking out a legal interdict against them.
That was Friday. By Saturday, Cumtree had changed its tune, suddenly sounding terribly responsible and managerial. “Please note we were not asking people to sexually harass you, merely to offer a male perspective to your article.” This only served to anger Cumtree’s critics further (social media fail no 7: respond to a growing firestorm with obviously disingenuous explanations for bad behaviour.)
It then explained that the offending tweets were the fault of its young social media manager based in the US, thus offering a reminder why the author of this much-tweeted piece on not hiring 23 year olds to run your social media presence might have a point.
They’ve subsequently apologised to Thorpe and the @Cumtree account has been deleted (though the website still presents the unsuspecting visitor with hardcore porn, with absolutely no warning – you have been warned). After nearly 3 700 tweets, it’s abandoned its 1 061 or so followers and presumably chalked it all up to experience.
@AbsoluteBrandSA describes itself as “Global Leaders in Branding, Corporate Training, Marketing Strategy, Corporate styling and Events management. Business visual specialist.” This leads one to assume that it prides itself on things like professionalism, if not detail.
On the night of the Olympics closing ceremony, they responded to a tweet by TV producer @TheJoLurie about the music: “or come let your son go down on me by Elton Dame Elton will do us proud” (Social media fail no 8: direct an attempt at racist/sexist/homophobic humour without knowing what somebody might find funny.)
Lurie was not impressed:
Whoever was behind the account then distanced him or herself from it by claiming that “our tweeter” would be disciplined in the morning.
On Monday morning, the tone suddenly changed. Only, unlike @Cumtree, @AbsoluteBrandSA dug itself in even deeper. It takes a real genius to up the ante by threatening somebody who takes you to task with legal action. “Joanne its Joe I have interviewed” tweeted the account, followed by “it’s under control.” “Joanne inbox me please”, “we have investigated this matter, however your attack on my company is Now heading as a legal matter. If u want to use…” “…this platform to increase your popularity, we will tackle this matter via the courts.”
These tweets were then followed up with this classic sequence:
“Sadly you have no clue are you dealing with”. Well, actually, nobody does. I googled the company but failed to find a website, and who is actually behind this account is something of a mystery. All in all, a superb ad for the marketing skills of these “Global Leaders in Branding”.
Naturally, all social media fails provide those of us in the peanut gallery with a useful opportunity to learn something. All very obvious, yes, but lessons like this are always a useful reminder of these points:
1. If you tweet from both a business and a personal account, leave business for business, and use your personal account for anything that isn’t directly work-related (and make sure you’re logged into your personal account in the first place.)
2. Never let your temper get the better of you on social media, not when you’re tweeting on behalf of a business or brand. Make sure the people tweeting on your behalf are absolutely clear about the distinction between themselves as individuals and the brand on whose behalf they’re communicating. It’s remarkable how many social media fails have happened because of this.
3. Never tweet on behalf of a business when you’re drunk. Much as I love reading drunk tweets, they’re never a good idea.
4. Never tweet sexist, racist or homophobic jokes from a business account — and if you’re on Twitter in order to network with potential business contacts, don’t tweet lame Elton John jokes from your personal account either.
5. Don’t threaten your critics. It never looks good. Unless you’re perceived as the victim, the threat of legal action is about the worst thing you can do; it makes you look like a bully of the worst order, and nobody likes a bully.
6. Be honest when you do stuff up. The best way to tone down criticism is to take it on the chin. As we saw with both cases, spurious explanations for what happened never go down well, and tend to make people angrier.
7. When all else fails, and you’ve thoroughly disgraced yourself, it’s best to retire from the scene. You can always return later, older and – hopefully – wiser.
It’s best not to make these mistakes in the first place, of course. If you can’t behave appropriately in public, put the phone away and keep your thoughts to yourself. It’s just better that way.
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