When Social Media Engagement is the Worst PR Move Possible

When Social Media Engagement is the Worst PR Move Possible

Social media engagement is a reliable strategy for growing an online presence. When done correctly, the returns are hard to match. When done poorly, a brand may come off as disingenuous, superficial, or even condescending. And it can go even worse than that: engaging the Internet at large is a very risky prospect for brands who are in the middle of suffering huge backlash.

The example for today’s blog is SeaWorld, whose #AskSeaWorld Twitter Q&A session earlier this year was something along the lines of a social media Hindenberg. SeaWorld has been under fire of late for its treatment of Orcas, and that only got worse in 2013 with the release of the film “Blackfish”. Public perception went wholly negative, and ticket sales plummeted. SeaWorld’s inaction at remedying the criticisms leveled in the movie has done nothing to win back the hearts of its disenchanted former-patrons.

SeaWorld decided in late March to go on the offensive and reach out directly to their audience, both individually and at large, by holding a Twitter Q&A using the hashtag #AskSeaWorld. It went about as well as anyone expected. The hashtag was inundated with questions about their poor treatment of captive Orcas, their inaction on improving that treatment, and of course the angry trolling and spam that any controversial topic on the Internet receives.

There are two lessons here. First, that with about a minute’s worth of thought, SeaWorld could have foreseen all of this. They didn’t have a revelatory ace up their sleeve, and if they did, a Twitter Q&A was not the place to drop it. Without it, they were only ever going to get a concentrated dose of fiery vitriol from the enraged Twitter public.

Second, we can abstract from this to basically any similar situation. A Twitter Q&A on a controversial topic is inviting angry Tweets. A Twitter Q&A on a controversial topic when you have nearly zero allies is inviting a PR disaster.

Why is this?

When you’ve stirred up controversy, especially on a moral issue like animal abuse, your audience grows well beyond what it was before– though the new eyes are mostly all hostile. The public at large eyes-on, waiting to see the mistake fixed, responsibility taken, apologies given… or a meltdown.

With all of this negative attention, and the lowered inhibitions of people on the Internet, a Twitter Q&A was basically an invitation for angry voices to engage. Instead of going on the offensive and engaging their curious audience, SeaWorld was inundated with demands for rectification, or an explanation, or anything. No one wanted to listen because SeaWorld was unapologetic about an issue that demands, at the very least, explanation.

Consider a similar, more recent episode: the attention-craving antics by pharma fraudster Martin Shkreli. After his over 5000% price hike of Daraprim, the world was waiting to see him either penitent or taken down. He was stubbornly unapologetic. He followed this up with very public live streams, a (highly disappointing) purchase of the only copy of the Wu-Tang Clan’s latest album “Once Upon A Time in Shaolin”. He did everything he could to stay in the public eye. This might have not been a problem, except that he was under investigation for securities fraud dating back to 2012. When he was arrested for it, the public cried “justice”.

Shkreli isn’t directly answerable to the same kind of audience as SeaWorld, who is dependent upon ticket sales (and thus its public perception). But Shkreli may have alienated the public so much that his ability to be publicly attached to any company has been severely damaged.

The lesson is simple: social media engagement is not always productive, and can be harmful under controversial circumstances.

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