The road to social media hell is paved with good intentions


A few years back, my colleagues in the marketing department wanted to honour Canada’s veterans on November 11. They developed a Facebook image of a poppy floating over the company’s branding. While some of our social media followers appreciated the sentiment, others were angry at what they saw as a blatant attempt to brand a solemn memorial.

AT&T landed in hot water a couple of years ago when it published what it thought was a beautiful tribute to 9/11 by showing a photo of the twin towers through a cell phone.

But my favourite commemorative misstep was the tweet from SpaghettiOs which encouraged followers to take a moment to remember Pearl Harbor. The sentiment might have been fine but the accompanying photo – of a smiling, flag-waving piece of pasta – certainly wasn’t a good way to mark a military attack that killed 2,403 Americans.

This year, the Canadian financial institution BMO is recognizing November 11 with a campaign that encourages people to take a moment of silence in social media.

The concept is a good one. But when I went to sign up for the program I noticed a BMO logo on the Thunderclap page. The branding in connection with Remembrance Day didn’t sit well with me. Instead of joining in, I asked my social networks how they felt about BMO branding a moment of silence.

One friend said it was a “deplorable attempt at branding a universal sentiment.” Another called it a “big misstep” by BMO’s social media department.

But is it?

From personal experience and countless conversations with the smart, well-intentioned people who run social media at North America’s biggest brands, I can tell you that there is rarely a cavalier attempt to sell more pasta or RRSPs by jumping on a cause. More often a content producer or community manager is just trying to create good content about something they care about.

In this case, BMO seems to have done things right. They earned the Legion’s support by donating $50,000 to The Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command Poppy Trust Fund. According to its press release about the initiative, BMO has been ”the Official Bank of the Canadian Defence Community since 2008.” And the social media posts that get sent out on participants’ social media accounts do not mention the bank.

But here’s the thing: When it comes to branding around sensitive events, nobody cares about your intentions. It’s all about perception.

So far, the reaction to BMOs campaign has been muted. Two hours before the 11am EST, about 2,500 people had pledged their support. And aside from the comments on my Facebook post, there’s not a lot of negativity around the campaign in social media.

That might mean BMO has handled a sensitive topic the right way. Or it might mean the bank is just lucky. Remember that controversial 9/11 post from AT&T? A year earlier, the telco published a nearly identical post. The first time, the post garnered only positive feedback. A year later it was seen as a huge #socialmediafail. It only takes one loud and angry influencer people to build a bandwagon others will quickly jump on.

Here are three tips to help your brand avoid the minefields that surround tragedies and commemorative anniversaries.

  1. Develop a process for going dark. Canadian brands shouldn’t post in social media at 11 o’clock on Remembrance Day (and don’t forget other time zones!) But what if there’s a school shooting or a plane crash? If you tweet about your snack food and everyone else is talking about a tragedy, you’ll look insensitive and completely out of touch with your customers.
  2. Be the most cynical version of yourself. Of course you know your intentions are good. But if you were an outsider who already had reason to be skeptical about your brand, what would you think? As I learned in journalism school, if you’ve got any doubt, leave it out.
  3. Hide your logo. If it ever looks like you’re trying to brand a cause, you’re doing it wrong. Your company name should be minimal and your logo probably shouldn’t be shown at all.

Keith McArthur is founder and chief storyteller at Outfront Strategic Storytelling. He helps great brands discover, create and share their essential stories.

Published by Keith McArthur

I'm a dad, writer, husband, publisher, kidney transplant recipient, brother, friend, ex-journalist, ex-PR guy, ex-business executive, learning to become happier, healthier and more productive.

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