What do Kenneth Cole and Groupon have in common? Both stirred up major controversies through politically insensitive advertising. So the questions raised here are: Why are politically tinged ads so dangerous? Do advertising departments check with PR departments before launching like they do legal departments? And, is this kind of thing just a way to get any publicity?
First, Kenneth Cole. You probably know he (yes, he as in Kenneth Cole himself) attempted to use a tongue-in-cheek reference to the mass protests in Cairo to promote his spring fashion collection. The protest he received via social media, while not quite up to the Tahrir Square standard, was loud and vigorous.
Then there is Groupon and their ill-advised Superbowl ad that highlighted the plight of Tibetans. While decrying the fate of the Tibetans and their loss of culture, Tim Hutton says happily that they still “whip up an amazing fish curry.” Not sure the ad people or Groupon executives (probably 18 year olds if social media entrepreneurship holds to form) thought much about how the Tibetans would react to this, let alone the Chinese which represents a pretty substantial potential market for the coupon service. Well, at least they did.
A few quick lessons for crisis communicators and PR heads:
1) Your CEO can cause you some real problems–be careful about telling him/her about Twitter. Pretty hard to enforce good judgment in using social media among your employees when your CEO or “chief creative officer” does this. I think it might be good advice for senior executives to maybe run their social media promotion ideas by a few others in the organization before pushing the “submit” button.
2) The social media world is a very sensitive place. This may be the more important lesson. Now, I will say that I think both of these attempts at marketing showed poor judgment. But, it is also true when what you do or say is instantly visible to thousands or millions, its pretty hard not to offend someone. Especially if you are going to venture into politics in any way. I certainly learned this in my own business and even though, like most, I am politically interested, I tend to try to stay pretty neutral on political issues here. No sense having someone hit the delete button just ’cause they don’t like my stand on a hot issue. Personally, I don’t like this excessive sensitivity. I think it stands in the way of creativity, free expression, learning from each other and making the world a better place. But I’m not going to change that, so from a crisis management standpoint, it is just better to realize that you want to play with politics in your marketing, you are most likely going to tick someone off–and that can snowball rapidly in the networked world.
3) Are these really crises, or just the new form of marketing? This is perhaps are more challenging and troubling question. Admittedly, marketers face the challenge of getting attention in a saturated world. It is difficult. It’s always worked to push the edges of what is acceptable. The truth is that Kenneth Cole’s twitter account saw a dramatic increase in followers. He did quickly apologize and now he has all those new followers. Groupon’s mistake may be more significant because the Chinese government does run a country, a pretty big country last time I checked, and you tick them off and it doesn’t do much for your business prospects. But when is bad publicity good business? When does a “crisis” help marketers cut through the clutter?
Might this mean that crisis communication consultants will be brought in to a proposed marketing campaign not just to kill a potentially inflammatory tweet or ad, but to help plan how to first create the crisis, then apologize and recover from it?
I hope not.