2016 saw the deaths of many public figures and celebrities—most recently, George Michael, William Christopher, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.
It will also be remembered by PR pros as another year when brand managers have unwisely decided to add to the conversation online, prompting swift backlash.
On Dec. 27—the day of Fisher’s death—a tweet emerged from Cinnabon, which stood among the many Twitter tributes to the late actress, who played Princess Leia in “Star Wars”:
— Michael George (@mgeorge4NY) December 27, 2016
Cinnabon’s social media team—which had referenced Princess Leia’s iconic hair buns several times in the past—quickly deleted its tweet and posted an apology:
Our deleted tweet was genuinely meant as a tribute, but we shouldn’t have posted it. We are truly sorry.
— Cinnabon (@Cinnabon) December 28, 2016
Whether you think the tweet was in poor taste or an example of social media users’ oversensitivity, here are four lessons to take away from the situation:
1. Timing is everything.
In the rush to be the first to post a clever image or turn of phrase, social media managers could be subjected to backlash for not thinking before they tweet.
Though it’s no fun for anyone to be a target of the internet’s ire, an online misstep can cause even bigger headaches for organizations.
“Cinnabon’s tweet was an attempt at humor, but they forgot that an essential element of comedy is timing,” says Katie Harrington, managing editor of Wilde Words. “Coming on the day of Carrie Fisher’s death, it came across as extremely crass.”
Don’t be so eager to grab retweets and “likes” that you forget to consider whether sending that social media post is a good idea.
2. Make sure your team has proper training.
Whether your social media team consists of young communicators new to the world of PR or experienced pros, make sure that those who tweet and post in your brand’s name know your organization’s voice, along with guidelines about choosing appropriate topics.
Both [Cinnabon’s] initial tweet and the apology, which said it was ‘genuinely meant as a tribute’ showed a level of inexperience that is worrying in a global brand. If I was heading up their PR team, they would be bounced straight into crisis management training tomorrow morning.
Harrington says that for brand managers, tweeting about a celebrity’s death is “risky”:
Generally speaking, unless a particular celebrity is closely affiliated with your brand, commenting on their deaths is risky. At best, it looks like a wan attempt to take advantage of a trending hashtag.
If you want to take a chance, Harrington and Lauren Scarpa, U.S. public relations manager for SEMrush, say to stay away from any attempt at humor:
If a brand does wish to comment, it’s best to keep the tone somber. It may be a celebrity but it’s also someone’s wife, mother or sister. It’s not the time for jokes.
…[A]s a society, we want to be able to acknowledge the loss of a public figure/celebrity, but doing that without offending people is a fine line,” Scarpa says.”I would suggest brands acknowledge what happened, express their condolences, and leave it at that.”
Above all, remember that it’s not the time to talk about your organization, or its products and services.
Sabrina Browne, client executive at Burson Marsteller, says:
Brands should not include products when acknowledging the death of a public figure or celebrity. It generally comes off as tasteless and does not serve the brand or the brand’s voice well. Brands are not required to comment, but if they do, they should be sincere in their remarks and keep their condolences brief. If visuals are included, they should be very minimalistic, as a celebrity’s passing is not about a brand—it’s about a life lost.
“Death should never be viewed as an opportunity to promote your brand,” says Michelle Garrett, PR consultant and writer at Garrett Public Relations. “If in doubt–don’t post it.”
3. Heed lessons from other brand managers’ missteps.
There are plenty of examples from which PR pros can learn what not to do online.
Cinnabon is not alone in their mistake. Earlier this year, Crocs published an image of white pair shoes with Bowie’s Aladdin Sane flash logo. Then in April, Cheerios posted an image saying “rest in Peace” with a single Cheerio on the ‘I’ on a purple background to pay homage to prince. Both of the brands received backlash.
“If there’s even a question in this type of scenario, it’s probably best not to go there,” Garrett says. “You’d think they’d learn from the mistakes of other brands.”
Another similar incident involved a tweet from Spaghettios with an illustration of its brand mascot smiling and holding an American flag to commemorate the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor invasion. Of course, the blunder drew harsh criticism. Will brands ever learn?
PR pros don’t have to make similar choices in order to learn. Instead, take others’ mistakes as valuable lessons, so you don’t have to experience the same pain.
4. Even small errors can be blown out of proportion online.
Harrington says Cinnabon’s tweet, though exhibiting poor judgment, was a minor mistake:
…[W]hile I think the tweet was insensitive and a little too soon after Carrie’s death, I don’t think it was as big a deal as everyone made it out to be. Carrie’s Princess Leia buns were just as iconic as the gold bikini, so Cinnabon related to her and posted. Carrie had an incredible sense of humor and I don’t think she would have been offended one bit… She probably would have retweeted it.
“I think the whole controversy is silly,” she says. “Same with the Prince/Cheerios tweet.”
However, in this era of social media outrage, consumers can take offense to a multitude of actions—including something as innocuous as a new Starbucks’ cup.
Garrett cautions PR pros to “use care”:
While a lot of people weighing in on Twitter seemed to believe Carrie Fisher herself wouldn’t have been offended, it was poor judgment. The social media manager should’ve thought twice before putting it out there. You have to use care in these situations, especially when a lot of people are hurting over the news.