Tragedy is a human reality. People and nations may minimize it for long periods of time, but tragedy is a part of life on this Earth unfortunately. We all experience it at some point, no matter who we are, where we're from or how we go about our daily lives.
This week we saw tragedy strike in an unlikely setting when two explosions detonated in quick succession near the finish line at the Boston Marathon on Monday.
We learned that news spread faster than ever. Most of our Facebook and Twitter feeds were covered with photos and videos within minutes. We watched raw footage alongside news anchors and bloggers, trying to process what was happening in real-time.
Whenever something like this happens we learn about our online friends; we can immediately tell which ones are prone to make jokes and which ones are capable of empathy and respect.
Because we've grown accustomed to "LIKE," follow and subscribe to brands on social media, we also learn about how companies communicate amidst tragic world events.
On the day of the Bostom Marathon, most companies showed their respect by going quiet on social channels. These companies acknowledged that their promotions, sales and campaigns could wait a few days due to the circumstances.
Some, like the New York Yankees, decided to go above and beyond to show support. Others shared insightful thoughts and the meaning of the Marathon and Boston to their company.
Some companies, such as Virgin America and AirBnB, decided to add value in a time of need, providing utility in a manner that was relevant and timely. Their efforts seemed genuine and I will assume that those who received some form of help from them will remember it for quite some time.
A few companies probably forgot about their automated campaigns, as Foursquare did with this unfortunate automated email.
I wish the story ended here, with the good and the not-so-good, but there's always at least one company out there that goes too far and way too soon... In this case, that brand was food site and mobile app Epicurious.
Epicurious showed not only insensitivity, but also a complete lack of empathy, maturity, and common sense. The company tweeted these somewhat subtle self-serving messages the morning after the bombing. The tweets were deleted and an apology was soon posted, but screenshots will preserve the tweets until the end of time.
It's no longer 2009 folks.
Companies tweeting such senseless things shouldn't fire agencies or team members. Oh no, I think this is a deeper issue than that. Such tweets are but a symptom of a greater problem that lies beneath a company's drumbeat of social media content.
At best, Epicurious had a strategic issue. Perhaps social media was a bit of an afterthought there or perhaps the focus was on engagement for the sake of engagement; impressions for the sake of impressions. Perhaps someone was sick or someone took over without permission, and the right guidance simply wasn't there. Regardless of what happened, the strategy is clearly one to revisit.
Without giving social media the importance it deserves, a company's social media team(s) will certainly be more likely to fail publicly. Recognized brands ranging from Chrysler to Kenneth Cole have embarrassed themselves time and time again on social media.
I'd like to give Epicurious the benefit of a doubt and hope this really was just a mistake and not a complete lack of leadership, a lack of cohesiveness, and strategic planning.
I'm speaking as someone who has had the responsibility of guarding, protecting and representing a brand in a public forum, and I've always believed that a brand is always a tweet away from disaster. This is what leads me to question whether mistakes like this can continue to be called "mistakes."
Mistakes like this display symptoms of a flawed social media strategy, one where public communications with the entire world, including those who spends their days and nights on sites like 4Chan, Imgur, Wikipedia and Reddit, continue to take a backseat.
More than a social media strategy flaw, this could also go as far as being a flawed overall brand strategy.
Brands like American Apparel purposefully generate strong emotions - as they did with their purposefully insensitive "Sandy Sale" offers - but they do so in a way that's calculated and consistent. Their worldview is set and some will find it offensive while others will find it funny. Is American Apparel's approach and worldview flawed? Only time will tell, but at least it's clear.
But what about Epicurious' worldview? I mean, seriously, what does breakfast energy have to do with a bombing at a marathon? This makes me wonder... How do they view their users and customers? How do they view themselves and the world at large?
I personally think there is not excuse sometimes. If you're communicating publicly, you need to be accountable. There should be no place for leveraging a tragedy for the sake of attention and reach.
It's 2013 and it's time to act like it. If brands keep tweeting stuff like this, they're going to generate hundreds of thousands of tweets, but they're not going to be pretty.
Is it ok to make "mistakes" and apologize 20 minutes later?
All brands need to take social media seriously. This is not a choice anymore. Brands don't dismiss the press, they don't dismiss traditional advertising channels, and I doubt they intend on dismissing customers. By dismissing social media, they're dismissing all of the above.
Social media "mistakes" may not affect a company in the long-term (and they most likely won't) but is that a risk you want to take?
Let's hope next time there's a tragedy, brands won't make the mistakes they've made in the past. When in doubt, think about this: If you're not going to add value (to your audience), it's best to say absolutely nothing.
Tragedy will always be around us, but hopefully brands will stop trying to leverage such tragedies for their own benefit. A tragedy leaves no room for anyone to benefit, at least not while the Internet is watching.