Internet stardom can be a double-edged sword—for both individuals finding their 15 minutes of online fame and the brand managers who ride their coattails.
Ken Bone, who posed a question in the presidential nominees’ town hall on Oct. 9, instantly became a hit with online audiences and publications—as well as with journalists, PR pros and marketers.
The tweets and memes rolled in. Bone became an internet-era celebrity, literally overnight.
— Ken Bone (@kenbone18) October 13, 2016
What a difference a week makes.
Bone’s appeal went south after reporters and internet users dug up unsavory information and his fans quickly became detractors.
The truth is, we should have expected this. Bone’s memeification has followed a pretty standard trajectory as far as internet celebrity goes — a Joseph Campbell–style mono-myth viral cycle consisting of four stages: Memeing, Interviewing, Cashing In, and Falling From Grace. Most human memes and viral celebrities follow this narrative arc gradually, and many never complete it. But Bone managed to traverse it so thoroughly and efficiently — in all of four days — he serves as a teachable model.
Here are three lessons PR and marketing pros can take from the Bone’s meteoric rise—and equally quick fall—to and from fame:
1. Embrace trends as they happen.
Savvy brand managers soon came knocking to share in his 15 minutes. (Bone, meanwhile, used his newfound fame to promote voter turnout as well as peddle his own merchandise.)
That didn’t take long. Just four days after becoming an instant folk hero after asking a question during Sunday’s town-hall presidential debate, Ken Bone has appeared in his first ad. For Uber!
On Wednesday, Uber posted the following to its newsroom:
PR and marketing pros can capitalize on current events and trends if they move fast and know their audiences.
However, brand managers should ensure that jumping on a trend fits with their brand’s voice and goals. Otherwise, you’ll become another voice shouting from the newsjacking bandwagon.
2. Do your research.
Riding high on the internet’s love, Bone took part in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit:
— Ken Bone (@kenbone18) October 14, 2016
Though the thread boosted his presence, it also brought a swift backlash because of his previous actions and posts.
The media and the public started to turn on him with his Uber shilling, when he sent out a Tweet marketing Uber Select. “Ken Bone Sells Out” the headlines read.
Then came his Reddit AMA, which went off without a hitch… until Gizmodo began looking into his Reddit history and began the character assassination . In past comments Bone ogled preggo porn, admitted to insurance fraud, and in reference to Jennifer Lawrence’s leaked nude photos said, “I saw her butt hole. I liked it.”
Worst of all for many was that Bone said the Trayvon Martin shooting was justified, although he followed it up by saying the shooter George Zimmerman was a terrible person.
Bone’s fame—and his allure to brand managers—quickly took a nosedive. Though Uber hasn’t made any statements about its partnership with Bone, eBay deleted the Tumblr post it had created to ride the wave.
Mr. Bone apparently required extreme vetting before brands got too close. EBay pulled the ad after the Bone backlash swelled.
Marketing specialists said these types of incidents could be avoided simply by double-checking a subject’s digital history.
“Any marketer that is using data well can and will take five minutes to vet any potential influencer before they work with them to easily avoid problems like this,” said Baker Lambert, global data director at TBWA Worldwide.
Although eBay wasn’t working with Mr. Bone directly, it made an Imgur post highlighting all the Ken Bone-ish items available for sale, such as red sweaters, that would make a good Ken Bone Halloween costume.
The lesson here is simple: Research before you partner. It might be impossible to know everything about a potential brand ambassador, but at the very least, you should know what the person has posted on social media and whether there is any controversy related to him or her.
Along with properly vetting influential social media users before partnering with them, brand managers should ensure that prospective ambassadors know protocols and rules for ads and endorsements.
[I]t makes sense that Uber asked [Bone] to send a promotional tweet for this week’s launch of Uber’s black car uberSELECT service in St. Louis, site of the debate Sunday night that launched him to fame.
But there’s one problem: Bone may have violated Federal Trade Commission guidelines for advertising on social media by not marking his tweet as an ad or mentioning that Uber paid him for making the tweet.
Bone later quoted his original Uber tweet and added the necessary disclosure:
Both tweets have since been deleted.
Influencer marketing works best when individuals can use their own voices to promote your products and services, but it’s still crucial to follow disclosure deals. The time you spend educating your brand ambassadors is well spent—and can help you avoid sticky situations.
3. Prepare for inevitable downfalls.
After online criticism grew, Bone posted statements on Reddit and Twitter:
I wish to clarify that I do not condone the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Justifiable means legal, not right.
— Ken Bone (@kenbone18) October 15, 2016
Ken Bone owns up to his past statements on Reddit, showing that he has more class than any of the journalists who attempted to ruin him. pic.twitter.com/zMSo3WqAmf
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) October 15, 2016
I want to thank all the folks both online and in person that reached out to encourage me yesterday. Haters gonna hate, #likersgonnalike
— Ken Bone (@kenbone18) October 15, 2016
His statements have won him several supporters, but many people online are still lashing out.
PR and marketing pros should take this as a cautionary tale and a reminder that virality doesn’t ensure that your brand’s reputation is safe from harm. Always be on the lookout for potential crises—and have a plan in place when they arise.