Schrodinger’s Tweet: Social Media As Both Harmful & Helpful

Tyler Sack
September 18, 2017

Earlier this year I read this blog post by Jim Nail about value-based consumers and how social media is being used to hold brands accountable for the impact they have in the world. He observes that more people are considering the values a brand represents rather than the direct benefit they receive from a particular product or service when making purchases. Consumers are choosing brands that align with their own beliefs and considering the social and environmental impact that those brands have in the world and more people rejecting companies that do not share in their values.

However, the impact of a brand’s social media may not align with its intent and in major cases that disconnect can result in the boycotting of events or products. Minor cases are often ignored, with little to no attention dedicated to public relations efforts. It is also possible for research efforts to overlook problems by assuming complaints will be addressed on the platform as the notifications come in. A brand may attempt to build around core values that speak to its target consumers and unintentionally sabotage those relationships because of poor messaging or their handling of what appear to be insignificant chatter.

With social media, by the time we are aware that something has gone wrong it is often too late for taking preventative action. We’re likely going to be reacting to crises and expecting the negative consequences that are the result of a damaged reputation. By then it is too simple to identify what went wrong, declare that it won’t happen again and expect that problem is now solved for good.

We might consider our approach to social media and brand resilience as straightforward and common sense. That those incidents reputation-damaging campaigns are isolated events, outliers even, so that as long as we engage in logical public relations then preventative measures should already exist. However, just because a problem doesn’t present itself immediately or clearly doesn’t mean that a problem doesn’t exist.

There are cases where reputation-damaging events take place within social media that are not necessarily high-profile gaffes or trending topics. They’re the collective chatter that operate on smaller scales and will not exactly call for crises plans because it is assumed people will move on. Addressing consumer complaints openly and transparently is good for establishing trust, but if not handled appropriately will eventually set-off what appears to be an immediate and widespread public forum on your brand’s values.

As explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, epidemics appear to be sudden, immediate, and somewhat unpredictable. It is only when we look at their rise in retrospect that we can identify similar factors that are present in most cases. The premise is that with the right conditions anything has the potential to behave like a social epidemic as long as the topic is memorable, and has been approved or endorsed by the appropriate judges in smaller social networks, making its way to others as something worth their attention. With this in mind, it is not unreasonable to believe that each brand potentially has both harmful and helpful information in their social media that is waiting to be discovered and manipulated by a few people with the potential to influence others in their social networks.

For social media monitoring, preparing crisis plans may not be as straightforward as we might think, nobody plans to cause social outrage but if they do I can’t imagine that it goes according to plan. Preparing a response then is not as simple as accounting for past oversight or learning from past failures. Mistakes may not actually be accounted for, and thought to be part of a good or winning strategy when they are actually dormant catastrophes waiting to happen. After considering the possibility that a brand’s marketing material may not perform as expected in the world as it did with a focus group, it makes sense to not only evaluate those focus groups more carefully, but to understand the reasons for why certain messaging indicates whether a company is socially responsible or not.

Word of mouth has evolved with social media to the point that we have to expect that a single tweet has the potential to bring an entire brand’s reputation into question. Sometimes, it can happen very quickly and out of context. Prevention then, may be treating the most unexpected scenario as a certainty and giving serious consideration to what we publish.