I had a chance to talk with KIRO 7 news in Seattle recently about the current crop of social media scams plaguing Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
Say this about Twitter, it certainly is a treasure trove of incident mishandling for analysis.
Today’s lesson comes to us from the Topeka Kansas Home Office and is about the danger of overresponding to an issue. Overresponding means you respond to the issue with more force than is appropriate and in so doing your response creates more problems than it solves. Overresponse is actually a very common pitfall in crisis communications and is typically a panic move made by people who aren’t experienced in this arena.
The lesson comes from Kansas governor Sam Brownback, or more accurately his director of communication Sherriene Jones-Sontag. This Associated Press story has all the important details, but the key points are that a high school student joking tweeted something negative about the governor on Friday. His director of communications spotted it and complained to the school, who promptly brought the student in and told her she had to write an apology.
Setting aside the ways this incident from the outset has clear incendiary qualities because of the way it looks (and frankly is) the governor and the school system bringing their coercive force to bear on an expression of speech, this is a classic example of overresponding to a negative comment.
The fact is that this critic had a mere 65 followers. If there had been no response from the governor’s office, the only people that would have even seen this criticism are maybe 100 people at most. It’s a simple bet that well over 100 people have seen that original remark now after the governor’s response. From that standpoint alone, the handling represents overresponse: their response drove more eyeballs to the negative news than would have seen it if they just left it alone.
Add to that then the nature of the response and how broadly negative the response to that response is. On the first business day after the story broke the governor and school district have had to retreat and apologize. That tells us that both the governor and the school district were coming out strongly on the losing end of public opinion. A retraction that quickly is essentially saying “uncle”.
Worse yet, this response has spiraled now beyond the original issue and is prompting broader questions that may linger and be more damaging than this incident was. This opinion piece by Dean Obeidallah on CNN (a high profile site) raises a number of questions that I’m sure the governor’s office would prefer never have been raised, particularly the question about tax payer funding of social media monitoring and the likening of the governor’s actions to Nixon’s enemies list.
What this illustrates is what can go wrong if you overrespond to an issue. What people should take away from this is the importance of understanding that not every negative comment deserves a response. Sometimes your response can make an issue bigger than it would be otherwise. And sometimes your response can take on a life of its own and become more of a negative issue than the original thing that prompted the response. Finally, this also highlights how freedom of speech issues are very hot button and organizations should always try to never look like they’re on the wrong side of that issue.
In the end, sometimes the right thing to do is the less obvious thing: leave the issue alone. And this is where people who are experienced in crisis communications can help, because we understand these risks and can help make an informed assessment on whether it makes sense to respond at all.
I tend to shy away from predictions in an area as fluid as social media. The intertubes are filled with plenty of old pages proclaiming the eternal dominance of MySpace, the coming failure of Facebook, and a host of other predictions that have been laughably off the mark.
But I have had this nagging feeling in the back of my head for a few weeks that I think Twitter might be losing out to Facebook at long last.
Granted, this isn’t scientific at all, but a couple of anecdotal indicators on the ground.
First, I have a few friends who have been shutting down/tuning out Twitter. They’ve said they find it too hard to keep up. Others that the 140 character limit while fun at first has become cumbersome. Most of all, though, I’ve heard people say that they feel like they can get done what they used to do on Twitter better on Facebook (without such a hard character limit).
Second, I’ve noticed how one of our local news stations is no longer promoting Twitter like they used to. KOMO News is a local Seattle news outlet. For a couple of years now, they have been actively promoting the Chief Meteorologist, Steve Pool’s, Twitter handle and Facebook page. Lately though, their on-air promotion has stopped promoting Twitter and now only highlights Facebook.
Granted, this isn’t scientific. But I can’t help but have this sneaking suspicion that Facebook’s attempts to be a social media platform (as opposed to an application) is slowly succeeding. Why use Foursquare, Twitter, and IM when you can get it all done through Facebook? Their ability to unite multiple social actions into a single place has an advantage of simplicity.
Add to this that Facebook clearly has been able to develop a viable revenue model for their service while Twitter still seems to struggle in that arena. And finally, consider the fact that Twitter’s leadership seems to be in turmoil lately. Take all them together and this may be the window in which, when the history books are written, Twitter entered its decline and Facebook began to overcome it.
Again, we shall see. I refuse to call this a prediction. Let’s just call this an observation of a possibility.
This may be the time when Facebook started #winning.
It’s an interesting 24 hours in the world of social networking with big news related to three big companies that marks them moving to a new stage. Basically, we’re seeing a death, a birth, and a possible terminal diagnosis.
First the death. Kara Swisher is reporting this morning at allthingsd.com that News Corp. is selling MySpace. Based on the excellent, detailed story on MySpace over at Bloomberg Businessweek and the fact that News Corp paid $580 Million in 2005 and is unloading it today for $35 Million, it’s clear that MySpace is following Friendster to the Island of Misfit Social Networking sites.
Next the birth. Google announced yesterday it’s latest attempt at a Facebook killer: Google+. It’s very early, to be sure. But some of the early reviews of it sound that after the failure of Buzz and Wave, the third time may be a charm and Google may have something that will stick around.
Finally, a possible terminal diagnosis: Twitter. Biz Stone announced yesterday that he’s leaving Twitter. On the heels of several other reshufflings and the fact that Stone has been the face of Twitter from the beginning, you have to wonder if this is going to turn out to be Twitter’s “jump the shark” moment.
We’ll see how this all plays out. But it’s been a big day for social networkng.
Today brings the Twitter scandal chapter of Representative Weiner’s life story to an end.
I think most of us are thankful that it’s done. For many of us, this has been a combination of a train wreck in slow motion and a horror film where you keep shouting at the characters “don’t do that” and they do it.
For me, this has been something I track closely because of how it’s at the crossroads of the two major areas of my work: crisis management and social media. In a way, this has been the biggest issue at that intersection to date.
Now that the chapter is closed, people will start the process of figuring out what happened. There is a lot to review and analyze.
One question that’s already being asked and answered is how much of what happened is because of this “new” element, Twitter. Greg Sargent over at the Washington Post tackles that question calling Weiner “Twitter’s first major political casualty” and talking about how he thinks Twitter made this episode different.
He focuses on two major things that he things makes this different. First, he talks about how the newness of the technology (to Weiner) led him to try and “undo” his action in a way that only caused the story to go more broadly. Second, he talks about how the nature of Twitter enabled and encouraged an obsession with the story unlike any other. Because of these new elements, he declares this the harbinger of a new, darker world. He notes: “But this episode also showcased and encouraged a new kind of hyperkinetic, Twitter-fueled pack journalism that at bottom was very, very ugly to behold.”
Is he right about that?
I say no, not really. Yes, there are differences, but these are differences of degree rather than kind. At the end of the day, what drove this crisis are two things that always drive the hottest and least successfully managed crises: a cover-up and lying. These actually underpin, respectively, the two main points Sargent calls out.
Weiner’s first attempt to manage the situation was to try unsuccessfully to delete the Tweet. That action helped set in motion the whole chain of events. Attempting to delete the Tweet is fundamentally no different than shredding documents or silencing witnesses (which he also tried to do). It’s old fashioned cover-up. All of these are attempts to make it appear that which happened didn’t happen. As I said regarding another Twitter-driven crisis, the wise words of H. R. Haldeman from Watergate days applies: You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
The “the weeks-long journalistic obsession with his lewd acts” which Sargent describes ultimately is the result of the role of his lying. Weiner first created a lie that failed the plausibility test and then later failed to disclose all the information that the public wanted to hear. He committed both outright lies and lies of omission. Crises that play in the public space that have either or both of these elements always take on a life of their own fueled by the desire to find what’s being hidden. Humans love a challenge: once the media (and I include mainline journalism and Twitter in that) believes there’s hidden information it becomes a challenge to be the one who finds the prize first. Social media speeds up the sharing of information that enables better and faster cooperation as the Cooks Source case demonstrated. But technology is just an enabler and facilitator. Behind it is the role that lying plays in driving a quest for the truth that can seem obsessive at times.
On a side note, lying played an additional role in the situation. The fact that Weiner managed to convince others to parrot his lies for him for a week only compounded the situation by turning those allies against him once the truth started coming out. The ancient rule of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” applies here. As Sargent’s college Jonathan Bernstein writes,Weiner’s duping of his colleagues made the situation worse, leaving him no allies here at the end.
Sarget’s right that this situation had new qualities. Twitter was a prominent part of the story. And the media landscape against which we operate today is faster, harsher, more brutal than it once was. But the fundamental dynamics, principles, and issues really aren’t much different than they were in the Watergate years. The key differences are that more than two people broke open the story in about three weeks rather than two years.
The lesson for those of us in crisis management is that social media takes the classic rules and speeds them up. You’ll need to adapt your tactics appropriately, but the strategies ultimately remain the same.
[Updated: Corrected “Cooks Source” which was erroneously entered as “Cooks Illustrated”]
It’s a treat to find someone able to bring a different and informative point of view to a topic that’s essentially being carpet bombed in the media.
Steven Levy has an article over at Wired today that talks about the design of Twitter and how that may have played a role in facilitating the Weiner crisis.
I’ve generally liked Levy’s work in the past and this article is a very insightful one. It combines an interesting story about the decisions behind Twitter when it was built with a story about how those application behaviors have played a role in this crisis. For instance, he talks about the decision to make “following” two one-way decisions rather than a single joint decision.
Well worth a read to better understand Twitter and to understand another aspect of the Weiner crisis.
Of course, you could also pop over to TMZ.COM and get the latest gossipy piece of news in this all: former porn star Ginger Lee talking about how she was encouraged to lie to the press by Representative Weiner.
It’s always nice to start the week off with a positive, successful story.
The facts appear to be that someone managed to lay hands on or create an official looking piece of McDonald’s letterhead. They then proceeded to print something outrageously racist on it. They taped it up on the glass of a door to a McDonald’s restaurant, took a picture, posted it to Twitter and then sat back to watch the “fun”.
McDonald’s used a smart combination of Twitter and traditional media response in their handling to very smart effect. They used the speed and succinctness of Twitter to get out a quick and effective response. Mashable also contacted McDonald’s and got a full statement from Rick Wion, one of the folks on their Twitter handle, that reiterates the point that it’s a hoax and uses the format of that response to give more background and detail.
These two used together like this form a potent and effective “one two punch”. McDonald’s also gets credit for having what seems likely to be the same person handle both responses. It makes the response more human and genuine.
Sometimes less is more in terms of responses. And this shows how the short form of Twitter can work very well in those instances.
Overall a successful defusing of a potentially bad situation. You likely wouldn’t have heard about it if I didn’t write on it. That is the mark of success in this space.
It’s official, Representative Weiner chose the hard way.
After a week plus of trying to avoid it, he had to fess up today that he sent the picture through Twitter. At this point, he also had to admit to other instances of this behavior.
Like I said last week, this wouldn’t go away until folks felt that had all the information. The botched handling a week ago set in motion an amplified chain of events that has made this situation worse than it would have been if he said last week what he said today.
It’s hard to speculate but it’s possible if he admitted sending the picture last week, he may have been able to hold the line on admitting other instances (though I wouldn’t have counseled that). I think it’s likely though that the congressional ethics investigation he’s about to be subject to wouldn’t have come about or would be less vigorous if he’s admitted this all last week.
Here’s hoping he gets better advice for the next stages of this situation.
This morning’s news feed contains stories about the breaking of another so-called “superinjuction“.
If you’re not aware, a “superinjunction” is a legal order out of the United Kingdom. It’s similar to what we would call a “gag order” here in the United States.
“Superinjunctions” though go a step further than traditional gag orders because not only can you not talk about whatever it is the injunction has been granted to cover, but the very fact that the injunction exists and what it enjoins is also covered. In other words, not only can you not talk or write about something, but you can’t talk or write about the fact that you can’t talk or write about it either.
Superinjunctions aren’t new. But they took on a new light in April when information that was covered under one of these superinjunctions was leaked to Twitter. The holder of the injunction went to Twitter to enforce the injunction. Being a legal order, Twitter had no real choice and started to enforce the order by removing tweets. The Twittersphere, though, took issue with this act of censorship and used the easy, quick sharing capabilities of Twitter to confound the effectiveness of enforcing the order be retweeting the story faster and more broadly than it could be removed. Folks also took to Facebook to post information too.
Today, now, we read that an Irish newspaper has released information sealed under a different superinjunction. Since Ireland isn’t part of the UK, the British superinjunction has no teeth in Ireland.
The Twitter episode also shows how the old tools to control information simply don’t work now. Peer sharing creates millions of possible communications channels at once, and it’s infeasible to monitor and shut them all down at once. This is compounded too by the fact that there are multiple peer sharing channels. Even if you are able to block Twitter for example, people will move to Facebook and even text messages.
Both episodes also underscore how actively trying to kill discussion of something in the public sphere ultimately achieves the opposite effect. In a global, socially connected world like we live in now, not only can you not put the toothpaste back in the tube, but if you try, people will pick up on that and give the story significantly more attention than it otherwise would have gotten.
This global, socially connected world is one that is highly sensitive to attempts to control information. And it’s one that will respond quickly and vigorously to those attempts.
The lesson from this is clear. If you have a story that you don’t want people to read about: leave it. Do NOT try to shut down discussion because you will only make the matter worse. Your best bet is to try and hide in plain sight.
The past two days has seen the mysterious case of the picture sent from US Representative Anthony Weiner’s Twitter handle to a female college student here in Washington state go from bad to worse to downright toxic in the span of two days.
As I write this, this story is now listed as the top story on Google News with over 1700 stories listed on this for today.
It remains to be seen how this will all play out.
One thing is clear though, the downward progression of this story in terms of tone and the outward progression in terms of breadth of coverage are a direct result of yesterday’s failed attempts to quell the situation at a press conference.
Steve Kornacki has a good write-up at Salon outlining yesterday’s disastrous press conference. Justin Elliott follows on, again at Salon, with a good discussion of how that press conference has sent things spiraling out of control.
If you watch the video of the press conference, it’s a cringe-worthy performance. Weiner tries to seem that he’s being open, accessible, and up-front by engaging with the press, rather than simply “bunkering down” and not commenting or engaging. The problem is, he’s not actually being open. Once he starts to engage the reporters, he refuses to actually address the issue in a straight-forward manner. Worse yet, the questions they’re asking are reasonable in the mind of most people and refusing to answer compounds the sense of evasiveness and lack of candor.
The error of yesterday’s press conference was that they refused to pick a direction and go with it. They had the choice to either be open and engage the story head on, or take a more defensive, “bunker” approach. What they ended up doing was a combination of those two which leads to them showing us the defensive, “bunker” approach on camera. That really is the worst of both worlds. And the story has changed from one about sending a photo over Twitter to one of “what is the congressman covering up”.
It remains to be seen how this will play out. The handling today doesn’t bode well, though. The most recent statement has a tone of uncertainty that only builds on the sense of evasiveness. That’s sure to enflame the issue all the more. As a congressman, one would hope that he knows the lesson of Watergate that “it’s the cover-up that kills you”. Even if there is no cover-up, the handling makes it seem like there might be. And, as the saying goes, perception is everything.
At this point, you can be sure that this won’t go away until the press and the public are satisfied that there is nothing being hidden from them. The best way to contain and close down this situation now is to commit to a path of open engagement on the matter as quickly as possible.