You’re on Facebook or Twitter and you want to be a part of a timely pop culture conversation by adding a witty observation or making a clever joke. Oreo’s repeated success at “culture jacking” has inspired you to keep your eye out for news and current events that are resonating strongly online and try to add to the conversation. You instruct your hip, young employee to take the reins and pair some jokes or cool comments with a trending hashtag, figuring you’ll attract a bit of attention and get users to notice your brand. Well, depending on the execution, people will notice all right, but it might not be the positive reaction you’re looking for.

Let me back up a bit. During the Oscar telecast last month, satirical newspaper/website The Onion took to Twitter to provide some Onion-esque observations about the ceremony and the evening’s attendees. One of their employees who had control of the Twitter account had this to say about 9-year old actress Quvenzhan√© Wallis, who was nominated for her impressive performance in the indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild [warning, language]:



Is it a joke? Yes. Is it edgy? Sure. Is it guaranteed to attract attention? Of course. But the reaction was largely negative, as even for a humor website, calling a child the c-word kind of crosses the line. Entertainment Weekly has a sample of some of the responses on Twitter, which were unsurprisingly hostile and critical of The Onion for stooping to such a classless level.

The ensuing shit storm prompted The Onion‘s CEO Steve Hannah to offer an apology, stating, “On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhan√© Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars.” Entertainment Weekly noted his apology is uncharacteristic as The Onion has drawn scrutiny in the past for some of their questionable content and refused to apologize for their editorial decisions.

The difference this time boils down to three things. First, there’s a difference between being satirical and being mean, especially when your comments are directed towards a child. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with the vitriolic reactions to The Onion‘s tweet, but I do acknowledge that to a large number of people, there are some topics where you need to tread very lightly when it comes to making a joke (children, sexual abuse, the mentally or physically handicapped, to name a few).

Secondly, it is exceptionally difficult to convey tone when you’re reduced to 160 characters. I suspect The Onion would have been able to dodge the bullet better if they had supported this joke within a larger article format, where they could have been so outlandish in painting a ridiculous picture of Ms. Wallis that the reader could instantly identify the comments to be a joke. Unfortunately, calling someone a c*nt and leaving it at that causes people to react to the message accordingly, regardless of whether that message originated from a known humor outlet.

Third, it’s not like The Onion posted this joke on their Facebook page, where fans of the brand would see it and (hopefully) understand the humor behind it. This was an open tweet sent out to the masses with a hashtag that thousands of other Twitter users were following and using. Total strangers who may not be familiar with The Onion were thus exposed to the comment and interpreted it as a mean, inappropriate attack on a child.

As Bill discussed in his last post, social media management should be taken seriously. Not only do you have to be mindful of who’s managing your Twitter and Facebook accounts, you need to be clear on what sort of comments or jokes are appropriate and which remarks risk leaving too much to interpretation. There’s more wiggle room on Facebook than there is on Twitter. You need to know each outlet’s intricacies and err on the side of caution.

Especially when you’re trying to interact with others or participate in a trending topic/news event, keep in mind the following:

  1. Whoever is handling your account for the event should be someone you trust can represent your brand professionally and appropriately.
  2. Be especially conscious of the platform being used. For example, on Twitter non-fans can see your tweets and may take special notice if you’re using a popular hashtag, so understand there will be broad digestion of your content.
  3. Discuss the tone/approach you want to convey and make sure it’s adhered to. No exceptions!
  4. Have a strategy in place should negative comments trickle in for whatever reason. For example, avoid having whoever is controlling your social media account respond in a knee-jerk manner if he’s feeling defensive or his feelings are hurt, but don’t necessarily ignore the criticism, either. Discuss the best course of action and execute it instead of shooting first and asking questions later.

The Onion‘s Oscar tweet incident is proof that even an established brand known for a certain type of tone and content can stumble and attract backlash over carelessly crafted content. The incident reinforces the need to have proper social media guidelines in place and to educate your staff on the type of content and appropriate tone to craft online that’s a professional reflection of your brand.