With the instant communication style of Twitter, a brand screwing up with a misplaced joke or comment in bad taste is hardly news any more. But after that common fate hit DiGiorno Pizza, something interesting happened.
Late on Monday night, a community manager who writes tweets on the branded @DiGiornoPizza account posted what was meant to be a joke.
In the wake of the news about NFL player Ray Rice's suspension on evidence that he had physically abused his wife, women took to Twitter to share emotional stories of their abusive relationships. They used the #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft hashtags – labels on Twitter that can be clicked for anyone wanting to see all the tweets on a certain subject.
Then DiGiorno leapt without looking, and on its brand account, the tweet appeared: "#WhyIStayed You had pizza."
The message was quickly deleted, but not quickly enough to go unnoticed. Outraged Twitter users responded, calling out the Nestlé SA-owned brand for an offensive comment one person called "an insult to all who deal with domestic violence."
Immediately, the account began sending out apologies. But they deviated from the general playbook of crisis management. The person managing the Twitter handle began apologizing to as many people as possible, individually.
"I'm so sorry – I made the mistake of not investigating before posting. I saw it trending and participated. Never again," was one message.
"It was a terrible mistake & I couldn't feel worse about it. I would never make light of such a serious subject," read another."
To a customer who tweeted that she would no longer buy the product, the account manager wrote that "There is no excuse" for the mistake.
By 4 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, roughly 200 individual mea culpas had been posted, and counting.
"When a mistake is made, it seems best to acknowledge, apologize and correct it as quickly as possible," Roz O'Hearn, communications and brand affairs director with Nestlé USA, said in an e-mail, emphasizing that the offending tweet was deleted within seconds.
Ms. O'Hearn did not respond to questions about who manages the account and what discussions occurred among the marketing team, if any, before that person began responding in this way.
The response illustrates a vastly different approach to crisis communications in a social media age.
For the most part, when brands screw up, they send out a general apology, and then attempt to contain the damage.
"None of us have seen this before," said Joseph Peters, senior vice-president in charge of social media and digital communications at public relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies. "This definitely wouldn't have been part of the playbook yesterday. But we have to think about it now. … The response here has been very forgiving, understanding, a lot of empathy that people can make mistakes."
Many crisis communications experts traditionally advised that apologizing too much can simply extend the news cycle around an error and increase the publicity it receives.
"I'm not sure every mis-tweet needs to be followed by 500 apology tweets," said Allen Adamson, chairman of the North America region of branding firm Landor Associates. "But there's something to be said for using social media on a one-on-one basis … because social media are all about individual voices, and not mass communications. The more authentic you can be, the more not-polished, the more believable, the more likely it is to be effective."