February 29, 2016 / By Julie
On Hollywood’s biggest night – which this year has been rocked by controversy stirred up over social media – about a lack of inclusion for African American actors, about boycotts for the show, and about the racism that exists in Hollywood, a major beauty house posted what the Tweeter (not the brand) an image complimenting Oprah’s tattoos. Only the person in the Tweeted image wasn’t Oprah, it was Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg, who was at the Oscars (and featured prominently throughout the show) to highlight the racism in Hollywood and the lack of diversity in movie roles.
Mashable and other media outlets quickly caught up with the error and began calling out the brand – some with humorous jabs at the insensitivity of confusing two of the most famous black media figures from my generation’s youth (I’m aging myself, but I grew up on movies ranging from The Color Purple to Jumpin’ Jack Flash and even Made In America – which also starred Oscar boycott figure Will Smith in one of his early roles), and we watched Oprah’s rise to being one of the most powerful media figures in the industry).
This isn’t the first brand that has made a big error during one of our big media nights, and it probably won’t be the last. Social media has given brands an immediate tool to react on major goings on, and the ability to connect with fans without a filter. Only, unfortunately, that also means that the senior PR team probably isn’t checking the messages that are being sent out on behalf of a brand before they are issued, as in the case of Oscar night tweets and SuperBowl posts. Some come up brilliant (Oreo: you can still dunk in the dark). Others, like this one, cause the brands more press – in a bad way – than if they’d just bowed out of the hashtag in the first place.
Someone from Total Beauty’s social media team, not to be confused with a chief executive or PR head who is responsible for crafting the company message, tweeted out a post confusing Whoopi Goldberg for Oprah. Instead of taking the post down once the error started getting picked up, the Tweet sat on their account for over an hour, raking up thousands of shares and angry commentary. One Twitter post commented, “Are you f***ing kidding me?!? The ONE black woman at the #Oscars and you f*** it up.”
Other posters shared images of white actors and deliberately mis-named them, highlighting the racist notion that all people of a certain race look alike and the error the brand made on that was already racially-charged. Host Chris Rock opened the show by calling it the “White People’s Choice Awards,” and Whoopi herself was shown in video segments highlighting the racism that exists in Hollywood and the media.
What Did They Do?
Oprah herself responded via an Instagram post by friend Gayle King, saying, “We all love Whoopi Goldberg but we don’t look anything alike.”
Overnight, the beauty brand doubled down on their apology, offering to donate $10,000 to Oprah and Whoopi’s charity of choice. The problem, fortunately for the poster and unfortunately for the brand, is that instead of calling the Tweet what it is, an operator error made by one person (inexcusably) while rushing to live tweet the Red Carpet for the brand. By instead owning the mistake on behalf of the company, the perception is that somehow the brand could have made a similar mistake.
Also missing? A statement from a senior executive apologizing on behalf of the team for the error. A tweet offering a “major” donation, without an apology from someone in the company who can become the face of the apology, will look like little more than another corporation that’s offering to throw money at a problem in hopes that it will go away.
What Can You Do?
When you go into social media, it is absolutely essential that you go into it with a strategy. Social media should not be handled by someone on the team who wouldn’t be authorized to conduct a press conference on behalf of the team (because essentially that is his or her role all day, every day – speaking on behalf of the company). And you should ALWAYS have an emergency plan in place as to how erroneous tweets will be handled – whether it’s a team member accidentally posting something vulgar to the company account instead of a personal account, or confusing two major American actresses. What is the response time? Four hours in the world of social media and blogging is far too long to issue an apology, and letting a tweet like that sit on the account for over an hour is also unacceptable.
When Tweeting, especially when riding on major hashtags, it’s important to remember to monitor your responses, even if you’re a major brand that’s used to commentary in response to your posts. Had someone been tracking replies and RTs early on, the mistake would have been caught much sooner, and would have been corrected much earlier.
Keep a second set of eyes on your posts. Even if you outsource your PR, and especially as a small business owner, keep an eye on what’s going out from your company’s account, and take quick action to correct mistakes.
Check twice, post once. Never be overly confident in your posts – you should always fact check. In my days as a reporter, a sister paper once published an image of an innocent businessman with an article about someone who had been exposed for having ties to the mob. Names were the same, ages close enough, and the reporter was on deadline (and the Web wasn’t nearly as complete back then!). It still caused harm and a lawsuit. Fact checking, deadline or not, is essential when you’re publishing information out to a major audience.
Know your plan. Apologize. Quickly. Get a statement drafted from a senior executive who will serve as point for damage control. If your PR is outsourced, that person should be from the PR firm, and they should own their mistake and hold the brand harmless. If your social media is internal, you need someone with a strong position who is personable and non-controversial to own that role in any snafu. A statement should be issued quickly – not just a tweet (although a tweet is important if the error occurred on that platform – it should link to a post on your site).
Own the error, but explain it. “There are no excuses” is accurate when confusing Oprah and Whoopi, but why did it happen? In this case, fans were left thinking that there was some racist tone to the tweet (especially since a dozen, or more, lesser-known stars were correctly identified). If there’s a way to make the erring person relatable, do it. We’ve all made mistakes at work, and it’s harder to come down as viciously on an employee who is trying to earn a living (just like the rest of us) than it is to come down on a brand that “should know better.”
Always take the position that a major error is unacceptable. “This is not our standard of business,” “We are committed to serving our customers with accurate information,” or “I, as XX senior executive role, grew up watching Whoopi on the big screen, and I know #thatsnotOprah.”
It will be interesting to see how this plays out.