Learning From The Mistakes Of Kmart, Motrin and FedEx

Three recent, cautionary tales…

Kmart was slammed by the blogosphere and debated intensely due to unartfully paying popular bloggers for placement through IZEA, a company which Michael Arrington, the most influential blogger says is:

The blogging world’s pariah and are fairly routinely trashed for, as I put it, polluting the blogosphere.

(See my previous thoughts on paid blogging)

Motrin, a brand essentially invisible to the social web previously, sparked massive controversy due to an ad which proved highly offensive and demonstrated their marketing department was out of touch with real moms.

FedEx was recently put front and center stage when an agency person from Ketchum, their PR firm, made a negative remark on Twitter about Memphis (where FedEx is based) on a trip to visit the client.  Actually, the drama happened not from the Tweet itself but from FedEx’s response.  140 characters can do a lot.

While these are three distinct and separate situations, what they have in common is they all woke the hive mind of social media in a negative way and inspired drama and controversy.

At first glance, you might think, “hey, at least these brands were being talked about,” but the rules are not the same as broadcast media.  The old PR adage of “I don’t care what you say, just spell my name right” holds true frequently but not in these types of cases.

These are dangerous situations for the image of a brand for today and into the future.

The internet is referential

In previous times, when a large PR crisis happened – it would run in newspapers nationally and locally, be put on TV news, joked about by radio personalities, and then discussed around the water cooler and at dinner tables.  Depending on the severity of the situation, in a few days it would be out of mind.  Within a few weeks certainly no one would remember the situation.  It might come back on those VH1 year-in-review countdown specials, but when it was done, it was usually pretty much done.

Something completely different happens on the web.  Instead of a mistake or drama being pushed onto the masses by gatekeepers, now people are free to call out the mistakes themselves.  And without gatekeepers, even small things can be made big, as proven by the FedEx example of 140 characters on Twitter sparking pages of blog posts and even news stories.

The fact that I can quickly link you to all of this and show you the scale of the situation in a few seconds demonstrates my point – the web is referential, and everyone knows how to quickly source things.  Those reading about these situations who publish content to the web will reference them when they mention those brands again because that’s how web publishing works – we build upon stories over time.  We know what has been said because we have been following along.  The web is semantic, and these brands have forever tagged themselves to negativity in a landscape that only continues to grow in influence.

Even if Motrin does something positive in the future, we will still link the Motrin moms story.  The unfortunate Ketchum executive James Andrews will be tagged to his now-famous Tweet – that was his introduction to much of the world that didn’t know him.  Kmart will forever be tagged in many of our minds as the brand which paid influencers off for some ink through a company that has a negative image across the blogosphere.

Do you think any of these situations are worth the mentions?  I certainly don’t – these companies have created a chapter about themselves that the web will not forget.  I didn’t shop at Kmart before, nor did I use Motrin, however my first impression with them is now negative.  The FedEx situation made everyone look bad – I just don’t see the value in airing the dirty laundry between a brand and a person at their PR agency.  It just seems like good fodder for Gawker.

This isn’t sustainable PR

Kmart and FedEx are large enough they generate a certain volume of mentions in the social web without doing anything.  Motrin isn’t, so it provides a better example of looking at what their controversy generated.  Now that the controversy has died down, we can look at some numbers:

They generated a substantial amount of buzz – it’s pretty obvious no one was talking about Motrin before their faux pas, but you can see their numbers going back to where they started shortly after.  Not any long term value here, and in my mind any positive aspects of buzz being generated are far outweighed by the sheer negativity shown to the brand.  Many moms went as far as to vocally write things such as “boycott motrin” – a phrase that this campaign generated 14K results for in Google.  Also keep in mind, moms are influential not just in the blogosphere, they share stories in person with each other frequently.

Seemingly small situations, made large…

The social web loves having something to talk about, and it is basic human nature to spread negative news.

Additionally, many brands are making their first forays into the social space, but trying to push old marketing tactics into an environment they were not designed for – creating awkward or negative outcomes.

These things combined create a perfect storm for negative PR to proliferate.  It’s great fodder for the influencers of the web who thrive on this stuff, because they know it will spread.  Controversy generates pageviews and attention they can use for themselves.

Information does not go top down, it is multi-directional and spreads at a dizzying speed across platforms and mediums.  We have built a system where news can spread at rates never seen before, completely unedited.  People are going to run with things, and there isn’t much stopping it once it has began.  So much of what is put into the system about companies is bland news, that anything even slightly off-color stands a good chance of accelerating.

Conclusion – don’t chase spikes, pursue linear growth through participation

image borrowed and modified from skellie’s blog

Spikes in attention – either the positive or negative variety yield similar results:  a quick, top of mind awareness, but without strategy behind them are not purposeful.  You can use spikes in attention to your advantage and create tangible value and results, but you have to create an ongoing dialog with the world and build upon what you are doing over time in a sustainable way.

Not saying positive spikes can’t help you – they certainly can, but without a goal or next steps built into the process and in place to capitalize on spikes, there is not much value in them.

I  have written before that you can ignore the social web at your own peril.  And we see more examples everyday, including companies that are highly involved in the social web able to hedge negativity before it gets too far.

Companies participating already have allies built and positive relationships forged with people not by trying to generate unauthentic buzz, but by participating positively in proper ways.  If your positive reputation proceeds you, that will in many causes stop negativity from spreading in its tracks.

Related posts from The Future Buzz

The Two Kinds Of Web Popularity

The Shift Of Trusted, Influential Media: From Brands To People

65 Bite-Sized Web Marketing Tips

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