The Onion’s Offensive Tweet: Why Deleting Isn’t Enough

Posted on February 25th, by BallywhoSocial in Blog, By Social Network, General Social Tips and Best Practices, Successful Brands on Social Media, Twitter, Twitter Content, Twitter Management & Best Practices. Comments Off on The Onion’s Offensive Tweet: Why Deleting Isn’t Enough

When the fake news becomes real news, you need to respond quickly and thoughtfully — not just with the delete key.

(Photo: Lester Cohen, WireImage)

By Courtney Cairns Pastor

I took a social media break last night. I barely watched the Oscars. And yet by 8 a.m. this morning, even I had heard about the Onion’s offensive tweet.

Officially, it’s gone, deleted. But of course nothing truly disappears once it has been posted online — and the worse the mistake is, the more it gets shared.

Here’s what happened, and what you can learn from it.

Live-tweeting television events has become a fun, popular way to show your snark and chat with others online. News organizations that do it usually share behind-the-scenes tidbits or commentary from their analysts. The Onion, a satirical publication, brings its unique voice to the conversation, and if you’re one of their 4.7 million followers you usually know you’ll get some laughs and a few gasps (in a good way).

Except on Oscar night, when someone behind their Twitter account crossed the line in a bad way with an offensive jab at 9-year-old Best Actress Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. It was deleted quickly, but not before it was captured and shared. This screen shot is from CNET:

Reaction has been intense. Rightfully so. But the Onion’s lack of response — other than deleting the post — has only fueled the anger toward the publication. As of Monday morning, no one had made a statement on behalf of the organization to media or on its own web site or Facebook or Twitter pages. (UPDATE: The CEO posted a response and apology just before noon on Monday.)

Instead, posts went up like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The Twitter community trashed the Onion on its own hashtag, #Onion, and Facebook updates got bogged down in outrage (and spam).

Before you think that this could never happen to your brand — after all, how many of us operate a satirical news site and tweet about award shows for work? — remember the KitchenAid fiasco from the presidential debates last fall. An employee accidentally sent out a tweet about President Obama from the company account.

Both KitchenAid and the Onion show the downfall of trying to keep up with fast-paced social media, and what can occur if you don’t take time to think about what you tweet. But KitchenAid responded quickly, apologizing and drawing the distinction between the company’s position and an individual employee’s error.

What should you do if you make a mistake on social media?

  1. React quickly. Delete if you need to, but understand that may not be enough. Depending on the scale of the mistake and how many people are talking about it, your company may need to develop a public response. You need a corporate culture that is nimble enough to make a statement fast — before everyone starts talking about how you’re not making a statement.
  2. Apologize. KitchenAid almost immediately offered “deepest apologies for an irresponsible tweet that is in no way a representation of the brand’s opinion.” It’s short, it takes responsibility for the error, but it also separates itself from the person who posted it.
  3. Explain yourself. You don’t have to go into details, but your audience deserves to know what happened (someone tweeting on the wrong account? an unauthorized post? a lapse of judgment?) and how you plan to prevent it in the future. You don’t need to share specific disciplinary action, but you can say that tweets will be reviewed, only experienced employees will post on behalf of the client or you will be holding meetings to see what went wrong.
  4. Be present. Someone was out there for the Onion all morning — several links were posted on Facebook and Twitter since the Oscar’s comment. But it took hours for them to respond to the many, many complaints. Don’t get defensive (see: Applebee’s) or wordy. Just get into your communities, post some apologies and/or tell people you appreciate the feedback. And clean up your spam, too — it makes your page look neglected.
  5. Monitor but move on. Once you have addressed the situation, prepare to eat crow for a few days (or longer!) and just go about your business. Keep an eye on what’s being said about you and weigh whether you need to respond. At some point, you make it worse to keep talking about what you did wrong.

We all make mistakes, and fake news can become real news in a heartbeat thanks to social media. What’s important is that you have a plan for the bad days and that you can trust your social media staff to implement it quickly. We can make sure your sites are monitored regularly and that negative comments get the appropriate, prompt response.

UPDATE: Here is what Onion CEO Steve Hannah posted on Facebook regarding the Twitter comment. It’s a shame it wasn’t posted several hours earlier, but the response does a nice job of apologizing, taking responsibility and describing future actions.

Onion response

Courtney Cairns Pastor is a writer and community manager for BallywhoSocial. You can find her on Twitter @courtneycp or follow our BallywhoSocial account for social media tips, news and more @BallywhoSocial.


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