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Social Media: A Fickle Beast

Social Media: A Fickle Beast

05 November 2014 | Lloyd Hughes

Social media is a fickle beast. When it favours you, it’s a wonderful tool for spreading awareness of a product or brand, and provides the platform for a business or individual to potentially seize the attention of millions, possibly causing a meteoric sales increase as a result. In a perfect world, of course. In reality, in this world, the beast has claws.

Although undoubtedly exhilarating, its potential is also mildly terrifying, both at a corporate level and an individual one. If things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong. A poorly thought out social strategy or even a careless momentary slip can see a product/brand torn to bloody ruin if the beast is stirred.

I still remember the idiotic PR ‘professional’ from last year who experienced the full force of negative fury that social media can unleash.

After posting an ill-informed and quite frankly racist tweet just prior to boarding a flight from the US to South Africa, Justine Sacco landed to suddenly find herself the subject of global infamy and international media coverage, as her misguided post was seized upon, publicised and lambasted. The fact that she was off-comms and unaware somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic caused the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet to trend worldwide as onlookers waited to see what her reaction would be as realisation dawned.

Stepping obliviously off the aeroplane and turning on her smartphone I imagine the amount of notifications almost caused it to self-combust. The resulting fallout saw her lose her job and she had to issue a grovelling apology to the entire African continent. Not the ideal way in which to start a holiday, but it ably demonstrates the potential pitfalls of social media.

Originally the hapless Justine had around 200 Twitter followers and probably thought her extraordinarily crass tweet was unlikely to ruffle many feathers, only to find that having a relatively small following doesn’t shield you from the social media beast once its curiosity and subsequent predatory nature has been roused.

I can only imagine what the jolt of realisation was akin to. She’d probably have felt better if the plane she was on had crashed.

Now, we’d all like to think that we wouldn’t be so foolish as to find ourselves in a similar predicament, but who knows how a flippant tweet, possibly taken out of context and misconstrued, can take the world by storm? This wasn’t the case with Justine Sacco. Hers was blatantly offensive and as many pointed out, as a PR professional, she should’ve known better. Journalists, on the whole not being fans of PRs, scented blood and were quick to publicise it, which no doubt helped to escalate her social media savaging.

But the fickle nature of the beast can take many forms. This week social media mauled the singer Rita Ora, but this time for the opposite reason. Her tweet wasn’t publicised enough.

The music artist made a ham-fisted attempt at turning social media to her advantage. A seemingly wildly optimistic post, which asked for 100,000 retweets for her to release her new single the following Monday, got less than 2,000 before being deleted. She then followed it up with the standard ‘my account got hacked’ tweet embellished with a bit of a tirade. Me think she doth protest too much.

Eagle-eyed Twitter users were quick to pounce and the ignominious retweet retreat was soon doing the rounds, holding the singer up to wider ridicule.

Was this a cunning double bluff though? The subsequent coverage of her online ‘humiliation’ has certainly seen her thrust into the limelight. Those who were entirely unaware of her prospective release prior to the tweet are suddenly enlightened.

Now, I don’t actually believe that there was that level of cunning behind it, as you’d have to be pretty thick skinned to rebuff the scorn that’s been hurled her way. However, the music industry is full of narcissists cushioned by a team of sycophants, so she’s probably been steered away from the harsher elements of the backlash, which means it could be true.

In reality though her team were probably guilty of being overly optimistic about the return that her nearly 4 million followers would bring. Unless you’ve got a Justin Bieber style fanbase it’s unlikely that anything you post will get picked up to that extent.

Using an app to reveal ‘fake’ followers usually demonstrates that celebrities have a disproportionately high number of spam accounts. Has Rita Ora deliberately purchased fake followers to boost her online standing? If so, it’s social strategies like this that will see that tactic derail in such a spectacularly uninspired fashion.

But real followers or not, it just goes to show how the tides of social media ebb and flow. Sometimes you get washed away in the flood, sometimes (as in the case of Rita Ora) you don’t get washed at all and end up causing an unintentional stink. But it’s something that PR professionals can’t afford to ignore. Social media should be embraced. It’s better to get too close to the fire and risk a little burn now and again than spend the rest of your life out in the cold.