Time and time again, it seems that individuals and companies alike fail to fully understand the internet. From #AskRKelly to #AskJPM, even to Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report,” and now #MyNYPD, it has been seen countless times: insular brands failing to understand how they are perceived by the internet – yet, for some reason, attempting engagement initiatives.
Cue disastrous outreach attempts.
For internet natives, the pitfalls are all too obvious. For everyone else, however, there’s always plausible deniability and the “we had no idea this would happen” response. Sadly, this response doesn’t always stop a crisis.
For those who aren’t familiar with internet culture, here’s one of my golden rules:
Just because you create a hashtag on the internet, it doesn’t mean you own it. If it can be appropriated and twisted into dark levity, it will be. If it can take on another meaning, it will. It’s only a matter of scale – sometimes it’ll only be a couple of people but, in the case of disfavored brands, it’s usually many, many more.
“America’s sweetheart,” and pseudo-immunologist, Jenny McCarthy manages to have her hashtags appropriated on a frequent basis.
After publically denouncing vaccinations in 2005, stating that they caused the onset of autism in her son, McCarthy has been something of a controversial figure when it comes to healthcare. In light of the recent outbreak of measles in New York City (which scientists blame on the anti-vaccination movement), however, her Twitter audience saw an opportunity to kick back against her unfounded beliefs.
A few weeks ago, Jenny McCarthy composed the following tweet, which also appeared on her Facebook page:
Immediately, much to the internet’s fiendish delight, both Facebook and Twitter began to respond with inflammatory and derisive answers, hijacking the hashtag.
News blogs, websites, and news sources picked up the story of the backlash quickly – a backlash that is still going, reignited by #MyNYPD, promoting the use of vaccinations, and driving traffic to jennymccarthybodycount.com.
#MyNYPD faced a similar situation in asking for pictures of the NYPD and the public. Instead of the positive images it expected, however, it was inundated with pictures of police brutality. Still, in a bid to maintain transparency, the NYPD chose to hold a press conference stating that the situation would not be silenced, thereby accepting and acknowledging the reaction. McCarthy was not as savvy.
Unlike #MyNYPD, the hashtag being used to share images of police brutality after NYPD asked for pictures, who have accepted and acknowledged the reaction (without trying to silence it), McCarthy didn’t handle the situation well.
Instead of opting to produce a measured response in order to provide balance to the issue, the ever-brilliant McCarthy remained silent on the issue for a number of hours. Later that day, after a string of non-related tweets, she finally responded to the comments with a blanket tweet of her own:
Although the statement garnered some goodwill amongst her supporters, it polarized the Twitter conversation completely, and not in her favour. The reference to the Q Score, a representation of a celebrity’s brand familiarity, made the authors of the previous tweets even more belligerent.
McCarthy failed to address the substance of the comments directed at her, namely the rise in preventable diseases, opting instead to proffer a verbal backhand. This decision incited a second wave of criticism.
In lieu of seeking out a way to control the backlash, McCarthy repeatedly declined the opportunity to provide news sources with a comment on the situation. Because of this, McCarthy had no sway on the conversation and was out-of-control for its entirety.
Whenever you’re dealing with social media or the online community, it pays to do your research and be prepared; the timing of an outreach is just as important as how you do it. Never underestimate the internet; in the modern day, it’s the most powerful weapon there is.
Unless you’re Jenny McCarthy and rely on maintaining a certain level of controversy to keep your career afloat, that is. Take notes, Sarah Palin.