Last week’s anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was predictably somber. The tenor of the conversation on social media, in particular, struck a quiet and respectful tone. Many organizations either stayed off social media altogether or posted simple messages of unity and patriotism.
At a time when emotions are raw and tensions are heightened, social media managers have to be particularly sensitive to the messages they put out into the world. Even when intentions are good or mistakes are honest, the already-critical social media masses are on hyper alert on days like 9/11.
This is why it was particularly jarring to see major brands make really egregious errors in judgment last week.
The Los Angeles Lakers started the day by tweeting a photo of their own controversial star player, Kobe Bryant, wearing the American flag ribbon they and every other team wore the season after the attacks. The social media sphere erupted in outrage that the team would tweet an image of a player to mark the day, culminating in a post on the site Deadspin that simply asked, “The hell?” The Lakers realized their mistake and almost immediately pulled the post (though not before it was screen-captured a billion times). They later offered this apology by email, documented on Yahoo Sports:
We apologize to anyone who took this differently than we intended and were therefore offended by it. We used a photo of how we commemorated 9/11 in the 2001-02 season, shortly after the tragedy occurred, because we wanted to show our support of what we felt at that time and continue to feel now. Out of respect for the intensely personal nature of how people remember this day, and that we recognize that not everyone understood the intent of our message, we pulled down our tweet and photo. Ultimately, our intent was to honor the spirit of remembering a day that we should all never forget.
Esquire Magazine had to deal with a different sort of mistake. A truly unfortunate technical glitch on their website caused an image associated with an article about the attacks to be paired with a frivolous headline about looking good on the way to work:
The reaction on social media was equal parts baffled and irate, and only intensified when Esquire offered this pseudo-apology, as noted on Huffington Post:
One of the most essential decisions an organization makes is whom to put in charge of social media. The easy thing to do is to hand it over to the tech guy because it feels like technology, but (sweeping generalization alert!) tech guys are notorious for holding everyone in the world in contempt for being hopelessly stupid—and that’s the last person you want responsible for being the voice of your brand. Esquire’s “Relax, everybody” Twitter response to an understandable but horrible technical glitch should have been utter humility. Instead, their snarky response became the story—and the new focal point of the social media mob’s rage.
Finally, a lesser-known brand made headlines before 9/11 when the Tumbledown Trails golf course offered a tasteless 9/11-themed deal on rounds of golf, as seen on USA Today and a million other sites. The outrage was so intense that two apologies, a promise make donations to the National September 11 Memorial, and the plea on Facebook that “We are a family owned business & proudly support all local charities and have always gave 20% off everyday to all Police, Fire, Emergency, Military, etc.” were not enough to placate the internet masses. The golf course received threats and other vitriol heaped on its Facebook page to the point that they considered closing on 9/11 for their own safety.
Every day brings new challenges for social media managers. How and if we respond to national or international events on behalf of our brands can be an identity-altering decision. On Monday, I stared at my computer screen for 10 minutes when posting a simple message on NAI’s Facebook page that our office in Fort Collins, Colorado, had reopened and staff members were safe after flooding ravaged parts of the state.
What it boils down to is awareness. Whether we specifically acknowledge events in the news or not—from tragedies like wildfires or mass shootings to positive news like holidays or (in my mind) major sporting events—social media managers need to know how to strike an appropriate tone and analyze how their words might be perceived regardless of their intentions.
And then if we do get it wrong, we need to know how to apologize sincerely without telling people to “relax.”