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Social media failures don't matter - but culture does

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 21, 2014
Social media failures have brought voyeuristic joy to our cubicles this week. But do these failures matter? The real problem runs deeper.

As the kids say, we've seen an epic dose of PR failures this week, many of them aided and abetted by social media ineptitude. Sometimes the fixes are easy, such as: don't broadcast a porn spambot's tweet on the telly, or keep an eye on your autotweet filter to avoid mindlessly rebroadcasting racial trolling. In other cases, such as the tragic unraveling of the Bill Cosby legend, no amount of PR training could ever lessen the pain or minimize the fallout.

Another obvious fix is the editorial filter: Dave & Buster's recent "Juan taco" fiasco raises the perennial question: why do companies with vast resources short-sell social media training and editorial processes? Or, in CNN's case, simply fire an idiot (though they have not fired this particular dope yet).

But as much as this "failure porn" powers us through our daily slog, does the impact of social media mistakes really hurt companies? Or is the power of the so-called "social customer" severely overrated? As Den Howlett recently said to me, the ultra-famous "United Breaks guitars" incident ended up doing no real damage to United Airlines. Granted, viral celebrity helped the musicians involved, but such viral whims do not a paradigm shift make.

Social media is not about brand conversations

The Ad Contrarian gleefully drove this point home in a recent post, citing a Forrester presentation acknowledging that companies are wising up to the limits of Facebook and Twitter "conversations". As per the Wall Street Journal:

“You don’t really have a social relationship with your customers,” analyst Nate Elliott wrote in a new report titled “Social relationship Strategies That Work."... “It’s clear that Facebook and Twitter don’t offer the relationships that marketing leaders crave. Yet most brands still use these sites as the centerpiece of their social efforts — thereby wasting significant financial, technological, and human resources on social networks that don’t deliver value,” Mr Elliott wrote. “It’s time for marketers to start building social relationship strategies around sites that can deliver value.” [bold emphasis mine]

Forrester's Elliott goes on to say that in Facebook's case, some of the problem is algorithmic: Facebook continues to reduce the visibility of most brand posts in a user's newsfeed, thereby turning Facebook away from Business-Page-driven conversations and back into flawed display advertising. Again, the fix is not hard - reinvest some of those resources in social features on your own web properties. But are tactical shifts enough?

The recent Uber brouhaha suggests much deeper problems are in play. Our own Stuart Lauchlan has covered Uber's missteps with aplomb. As Stuart notes, Uber has made its cause worse with incompetent use of social media for apology rounds. Uber celebrity investor Ashton Kuthner poured more kerosene on the blaze:

ScreenHunter_245 Nov. 21 11.46

But will such social media absurdity actually harm Uber as a company? Hard to say. Anecdotal evidence suggests the disillusionment is piling up (as in this blogger who is deleting his Uber app from his phone). Another contrarian, however, is not. For practical reasons: he needs a backup to the taxi system. Kind of like those who are compelled to fly United - guitars be damned - because they live near a United hub.

Yes, Uber has a social media problem, but I'm not sure it's fixable. Contrast that with Gillette, which recently got skewered on Facebook for pimping its new razors (users pointed out they liked the 1904 razor design better - ouch!). In Gillette's case, their social media manager(s)? handled user feedback with some grace, remaining above the fray but with a dash of humor as well.

Culture eats social for a morning snack

But Uber couldn't fix its social media problems if it wanted to, because it has a culture problem. As Den Howlett argued in Wherefore art thou HR? Uber’s broculture exposes hypocrisy at the top, a "broculture" run amok, reinforced by executive failings, is at the root of Uber's PR fracas. A "social media training" session wouldn't begin to fix that. Den:

When I tipped up for sociology 101 at college back in the early 90s it was a massive wake up call. It quickly became apparent to me that all white males are, to some extent racist, homophobic, sexist, ageist (and a lot more) whether they are prepared to admit it or not. Recognize that and you have a fighting chance of solving people problems. Deny it and you pave the road to working hell for everyone around you.

There is more to it, of course. Corporate culture problems are not usually gender or race-specific, but Den is getting at the deep-rooted issues that manifest themselves in PR gaffe cycles (many of the examples I cited in this article point back to cultural insensitivity or ignorance). When this is the problem, "disruptive" cloud software isn't going to save us.

Technology won't bail us out

Technology didn't save Tiger Woods from himself - blogging only served to enable his ignorance. But what do you do with someone who lacks a cultural grasp of the meaning of satire? Woods is not alone in such frustrations - many corporate marketers are so thin-skinned. they make Tiger Woods look like Zen incarnate.

Such marketers fail to realize that enabling open conversations by constructively engaging with dissenting or satirical views reflects well on the brand. But the legacy "command and control" messaging model remains. It's a bad social mix when you combine a control-the-message mentality with  "sentiment analysis" tools - tools which send social media marketers into a panic whenever the mildest form of criticism appears, nudging down the sentiment scores on which useless KPIs are based.

Which brings us to Mattel, which put the proverbial foot firmly in mouth with the disastrous "engineering Barbie," who is unable to code and must rely on men to do the Java. Nutshell: engineering Barbie designed puppies, but needed men to code the designs (and reboot her computer). Not good for an "I Can Be" series intended to inspire girls to do whatever they set their minds to.

In Mattel's case, an apology has ensued, along with explanations about a breakdown in the editorial process. The explanation for the breakdown is convoluted, including an apologetic freelance writer who seems to have made some baffling errors in judgement given her twenty years of experience.

Social response to engineering Barbie has been swift and ruthless. But a brilliant response comes via a bunch of coders who either satirized or remixed the book. (Here's one completely remixed version of the book by a PhD student). Perhaps the niftiest is this web site, Feminist Hacker Barbie, which invites visitors to remix a page in the book themselves.

I don't know if Mattel has a culture problem, but their apology was far better than average, because it focused on future decisive improvements, informed by a clearly-stated editorial philosophy. That's not bad, especially compared to the Dave & Busters standard-issue "sorry if you were offended" mea culpa, with no explanations offered as to how such gaffes will be prevented in the future.

Instead of being hacked, why not involve design hackers?

But what if Mattel had taken it a step further, and harnessed the social power of "geek girl coders" during the design phase of the Barbi engineer project? A big part of how you fix culture is by opening that culture up to the constituents you serve. Social is too often applied as the last layer on a cake, and if that cake comes out of the oven half-baked, it's going to get creamed.

The true power of social is in the ability to seed a deeper collaboration. Not as a rubber stamp to decisions already made, but as an integral part of go-to-market, starting at the point of design. Imagine the total opposite social response if these "feminist hackers" had been involved in the design of the project.

Instead of skewering it, they would have been the first to blog about their role in a good result (and surely the result would have been better with their expert involvement). That doesn't mean criticism could have been avoided, but at least some of those critics would be designers who understood the design process, and had their own skin in the game.

Social media may be failing as a means of brand-based promotion, but it's an invaluable way to foster a public conversation that informs future products and corporate direction. But as we've seen, companies can only engage in such transparency if  their own house is in order. Then if you want to use the latest whiz-bang tech to analyze those conversations and spur dialogue, I'm all ears.

Image credit: © beeboys -

Disclosure: I have no financial ties to any company mentioned in this article, nor does diginomica. But I've made my share of social media mistakes, and done the apology circuit like everybody else. Hopefully I've learned.

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