When we talk about online public relations, social media has emerged as a key component. Social media are the messages created and published by constituents. Other terms for social media include consumer generated media and user generated media. Online line it is easy for people to create messages and share them with others. Important social media sites include blogs, social networking such as Facebook, and micro-blogging such as Twitter. Organizations, both corporate and non-profit, have made a big push into the social media as a way to engage constituents. CEOs and employees are blogging and tweeting. One problem is that as people get comfortable with social media, the line between work and personal life becomes blurred. Personal elements in social media posts can be viewed revealing and a way to connect with constituents. By mixing in personal comments with business, it helps to create authenticity or a genuine feel to the messages. Said another way, it does not seem like messages were created just to support the organization’s objectives.
There is a downside to comfort and injecting personal comments, people can become too informal and careless in both message creation and content. Of course a vice president at a major public relations firm would know the dangers on inappropriate messages. So why did VP James Andrews from Ketchum tweet in Jan. 2009: “ True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say “I would die if I had to live here! 2:58 PM Jan 14th http://blogs.zdnet.com/collaboration/?p=189. “http://blogs.zdnet.com/collaboration/?p=189
So Andrews is not a fan of Memphis. If you check Twitter people have negative comments about many cities. The problem is that Andrews was going to Memphis to meet with major client FedEx. Twitters are public postings that can be shared a go far beyond the initial list of people who follow you on Twitter. Ideally your clients follow you on Twitter so Andrews should have thought they would see the message. FedEx employees did see the message and were not happy. They sent it to executives at FedEx and Ketchum (http://www.blackweb20.com/2009/01/15/when-keeping-it-real-goes-wrong/). The incident became fodder for public relations bloggers taking Mr. Andrews to task. The comments to such blogs just piled on with more criticisms. See the long response from FedEx at the end of this case.
An off-handed tweet became a point of contention and embarrassment for Ketchum. A client is unhappy and constituents may question how clever the organization is with social media. But it is an honest mistake that can occur when people are too comfortable blurring business and personal in their social media. Public relations is strategic and that extends to all uses of social media. Yes we want authenticity in messages but the personal interjections into social media must not harm the organization—some topics and thoughts should not be in a social media message that has a business element to it. Consider that many people have multiple social media accounts, one for business and one for personal. As blogger Oliver Marks at zdnet observed:
“For me the FedEx Memphis fiasco (no one comes out of this looking good) is a great example of the enterprise collaboration culture clash between the analog generation (cc’d dressing down email thread) and the digital one (airport bar style Twitter banter). The irony of James Andrews unintentionally demoing the power of digital media prior to his more formal presentation is great.”
The embarrassment trigger a chain of events that was followed closely in social media. Nothing draws attention in the social media like a misuse of the social media. Here is the chronology of events:
As many of you know there has been a lot of online chatter around a recent situation that has unfortunately spiraled. As an active practitioner in the space, I felt the need to both address the situation and offer my perspective on the practice of social media. Two days ago I made a comment on Twitter that was the emotional response to a run in I had with an intolerant individual. The Tweet was aimed at the offense not the city of Memphis. Everyone knows that at 140 characters Twitter does not allow for context and therefore my comments were misunderstood. If I offended the residents of Memphis, TN I’m sorry. That was not my intention. I understand that people have tremendous pride in their hometown.
Ketchum also called the incident a ‘lapse in judgment,’ in a statement. ‘We’ve apologized to our client… We greatly value this long standing client relationship. It is our privilege to work with them,’ the Ketchum statement read.
In later Twitter postings, the ‘keyinfluencer’ said he was ‘Having a great day with my new friends at #Fedex’ and apologized.
FedEx spokesman Jess Bunn said, ‘This is an unfortunate situation and demonstrates very poor judgment by Mr. Andrews. The reaction by our employees proves once again that FedEx takes great pride in our hometown of Memphis.’
‘This lapse in judgment also demonstrates the need to apply fundamental communications principles in the evolving social networking environment: Think before you speak; be careful of you what you say and how you say it. Mr. Andrews made a mistake, and he has apologized. We are moving on.’ “
It is amazing that one tweet can create so much of a controversy.
If I interpret your post correctly, these are your comments about Memphis a few hours after arriving in the global headquarters city of one of your key and lucrative clients, and the home of arguably one of the most important entrepreneurs in the history of business, FedEx founder Fred Smith.
Many of my peers and I feel this is inappropriate. We do not know the total millions of dollars FedEx Corporation pays Ketchum annually for the valuable and important work your company does for us around the globe. We are confident however, it is enough to expect a greater level of respect and awareness from someone in your position as a vice president at a major global player in your industry. A hazard of social networking is people will read what you write.
Not knowing exactly what prompted your comments, I will admit the area around our airport is a bit of an eyesore, not without crime, prostitution, commercial decay, and a few potholes. But there is a major political, community, religious, and business effort underway, that includes FedEx, to transform that area. We’re hopeful that over time, our city will have a better “face” to present to visitors.
James, everyone participating in today’s event, including those in the auditorium with you this morning, just received their first paycheck of 2009 containing a 5% pay cut… which we wholeheartedly support because it continued the tradition established by Mr. Smith of doing whatever it takes to protect jobs.
Considering that we just entered the second year of a U.S. recession, and we are experiencing significant business loss due to the global economic downturn, many of my peers and I question the expense of paying Ketchum to produce the video open for today’s event; work that could have been achieved by internal, award-winning professionals with decades of experience in television production.
Additionally Mr. Andrews, with all due respect, to continue the context of your post; true confession: many of my peers and I don’t see much relevance between your presentation this morning and the work we do in Employee Communications.
Questions to Consider
- What are some ways that social media can help an organization and constituents connect with one another (Chapter 7)?
- What does it mean to say all communication with constituents should be strategic (Chapter 4)?
- This incident seemed minor on the surface. What made it such a threat to Ketchum’s reputation (Chapter 9)?
- It is a stretch to call this incident a crisis but apologies were issued. How would you rate the effectiveness of the apology and what is the rationale behind your evaluation (Chapter 12)?
- What does this incident reveal about the power of the social media and its affect on the web of constituent relationships?
- What guidelines might an organization create for social media use to help prevent such lapses in the future? How might such guidelines be viewed as a form of risk communication (Chapter 11)?