Social Media: The Next Frontier for Yellow Journalism Embroils Chick-Fil-A, Ford and Celeb Boutique
In 1897, Fredric Remington was sent to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American war. His boss, William Randolph Hearst, planned to use the war to increase circulation and grow his newspaper empire. After assessing the situation, Remington reportedly requested to return home by cabling "there will be no war." Hearst responded, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." The sensationalized stories that followed have been recognized as the peak of yellow journalism.
That was before social media. Hearst, who had no fear of stretching the truth to its breaking point, would likely shake his head in amazement if he could see what happens in the social channel these days. Sensationalizing stories to increase circulation has been replaced with controversy-stoking fires designed to increase page views and clicks. Truth in commentary is optional.
Yellow journalism, the practice of presenting biased opinion as fact in a sensationalized manner, affects more than website traffic and print circulation. It can be used to alter brand image by manipulating social platforms, search engines, and traditional news outlets. If the company doesn't respond or responds poorly, the results can be long lasting and lethal.
When Celeb Boutique tweeted "#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress " with a link to the sales page, it set off a firestorm of tweets and blog posts about the company's insensitivity. It wasn't long before the activity gained wider exposure with journalists for traditional news outlets covering the social media faux pas.
Tweets normally have a short life span. They disappear in a few days usually taking the drama with them. Celeb Boutique wasn't the first business to post a misguided tweet but the company is paying a higher price than its predecessors. Kenneth Cole had a similar experience during the revolution in Cairo. After an apology and a few days of drama, things returned to business as usual. The drama for Celeb Boutique disappeared a few days later but everyone who uses Google to find the company is exposed to the negative publicity. A search for Celeb Boutique delivers three positive links on the first page—the company's website, Twitter page, and Facebook page. There are seven links to negative posts about the misguided tweet.
Of course the best way to avoid negative publicity is to be smart about what is shared on your corporate page. This includes running a litmus test check on every post before it is shared. If the answer is negative to any of the following questions, don't share the content:
- Does it provide a positive view of our brand?
- Does it reflect our brand's value?
- Does it provide value to our customers and prospects?
- Does it advance our brand?
It's very easy to get caught up in the drama du jour on the social channel and chime in with something that doesn't pass the litmus test. Ryan Holiday wrote a book, "Trust Me, I'm Lying" to expose how easy it is to manipulate the media. He used HARO (Help a Reporter Out) to provide false information and gain top media coverage. Peter Shankman, founder of HARO, took offense and fired off an angry blog post. It wasn't long before the controversy grew legs. When something like this happens, it is only natural for people to want to share their thoughts. Those who represent companies in the public forum should always run the litmus test BEFORE posting their opinion.
Does this tweet pass the litmus test or should it have been shared privately? After all, what's the harm in sharing an opinion even if you are representing a company? Before you answer, look at the second image in the media player.
Are the readers associating the tweet with Scott Monty, the individual? Or, are they seeing it as a message from Ford? Now, think about Chick-fil-A and the Dan Cathy controversy for a moment. It began with Cathy sharing his opinion.
Looking at it from a marketer's perspective, I find the story both fascinating and frightening. When emotional reactions are removed, there are marketing lessons to be learned. The way that the story evolves from comments to the Baptist Press to a record setting sales day fascinates me. The shutdown of the event page frightens me.
When Dan Cathy stated his views to the Baptist Press, it is unlikely that it would have become a trending topic if GLAAD hadn't challenged them. The group's challenge attracted the attention of politicians who took a stand by saying that the company wasn't welcome in their territories. This moved the debate from marriage rights to freedom of speech and overall American rights. It inspired Mike Huckabee to create a Facebook Event page for Chick-fil-A appreciation day (the third image in the media player).
The events leading up to the Appreciation Day show that having the right people participating in the conversation makes the difference between a blurb on the screen and viral activity. The actions of the people participating in Huckabee's event are a social media game changer. We are accustomed to seeing viral activity in the form of comments, likes, and posts. This is the first time we've seen tens of thousands of people voicing their opinion with their wallets. What began as a protest against the company became an overwhelming show of support in the form of sales.
Facebook's response to the activity on the event page is disturbing. When the show of support by people accepting the invitation began snowballing, the page disappeared for twelve hours.
The disappearance was explained as a technical glitch that triggered a spam alert resulting in the deletion of the page. It left people wondering if it were truly an error or if Facebook is policing content.
If Facebook is policing content, it is not the only social platform doing so. Twitter has been caught doing the same thing. Twitter and NBC partnered to cover the Olympics. When a British journalist spoke negatively about NBC's coverage, his Twitter account was closed. It was later revealed that Twitter employees told NBC to submit a complaint so the page would be taken down. Twitter has issued an apology, but the damage is done. Every company and individual using social media has to accept the reality that if they don't follow the platforms arbitrary guidelines, their accounts will simply disappear. It takes a long time to create a network. Losing it could be disastrous.
There are several issues to be considered in the yellow journalism age of social media:
- Is your activity representing your brand well to the right people? Who knew there were so many people watching the Chick-fil-A controversy? How many are watching what is posted on your brands social platforms without commenting? This silent majority may vote with their wallets for or against your business too. It's not likely that they will come out in mass, but any negative votes are a loss of revenue. (It's time to answer the Scott Monty tweet question. Should the tweet have been shared privately?)
- Have you positioned your business to withstand a negative attack? Are your webpages optimized or will they be replaced on search engines by negative articles on websites with better SEO? Do you have a social media disaster plan in place or will you have to wing it when it happens?
- What happens if your brand's networks are shut down? If you aren't capturing email addresses and creating social hubs, how will you stay in touch with your network? Are you building your financial house on social media sand?
- Branding happens. People are watching what happens online. Your business is at risk even if you aren't participating in social media. For example, a disgruntled customer posted a negative review of a local car dealership on Ripoff.com. He then created a fake Twitter account using the dealership name. Every tweet included a link to his review. How is that for branding?
There are those who say that social media is about creating relationships instead of delivering a return on investment. I'm not one of them because I believe that every business investment must be done with an expectation of a return. Participating in social media is expensive. Shouldn't you do everything possible to promote and protect your brand?
A version of this article also appeared on Multichannel Magic: A Wilson & Ellis Consulting Blog.