"Boy, I sure hope someone got fired for that blunder."
How often have you seen that sentiment on social media? It's one of those phrases that tends to crop up whenever a person or brand posts something on a social channel that could be considered offensive, off-colour or controversial.
These days, it doesn't take long before the social media hate machine ramps up from offended to calling for someone's head in the wake of a controversial posting. Because of this, brands may be tempted to act quickly and immediately rectify the situation when the heat suddenly gets turned up.
And yet in the rush to punish someone for making a mistake, we not only forget about the human implications of such a rush to judgement, but a brand that moves too fast against a potential backlash may find itself with a much more complicated problem on their hands.
Just ask the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Last week, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra cancelled several scheduled performances by pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who was born in Soviet Ukraine, over tweets she posted about the Ukrainian crisis. According to the Globe and Mail, the TSO's CEO said the orchestra received complaints from "a wide swath of Torontonians" about Ms. Lisistsa's appearances because of her comments on social media.
The TSO received complaints, moved quickly to address the situation and acted decisively. Problem solved, right?
Not so much. In fact, the TSO ignited a whole new controversy when some critics chastised the TSO for what they said amounted to a firing over Ms. Lisistsa's political views. By giving in to the original backlash, the TSO opened itself up to a situation they ultimately couldn't control when the issue moved from one of online outrage to one of censorship.
Ultimately, values should be the guiding light of any brand. Roy Disney once remarked that "it's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are." When a brand clearly understands what it stands for, making quick decisions in the face of an online crisis is easier.
People make mistakes every day. It's human nature. And in this era of immediacy and instant reactions brought on by social networks and our always-on mobile culture, it's pretty much inevitable that at some point, for some reason, your brand is going to do or say something it shouldn't.
But there's a certain permanency associated with leaving your mark online, and this is where a lot of brands get caught up, assuming the best reaction is to permanently remove the problem. However, making a mistake is often not the problem – people can be forgiving – it's usually more about how a company responds that truly defines a brand.
In an example that stands in stark contrast to the way the Toronto Symphony Orchestra handled a social media fail, U.S. Airways stuck to their guns and supported an employee after the company accidentally posted a pornographic photo on its Twitter account.
The company apologized to its online community, realized the employee made an honest mistake and stood by the employee because they were following protocol. It was a bold move to defend and protect the social media manager who made the mistake, and the story died down after the initial shock of the photo wore off.
By realizing that the offense was unintentional, U.S. Airways wound up appearing compassionate and more human by defending their employee.
On a similar note, The Daily Show and Comedy Central found themselves defending their new host, Trevor Noah, after people uncovered graphic and controversial tweets made by the comedian. The network and the show's producers stood behind their new host, however, arguing that comedians take risks. The show stood by Mr. Noah, saying that no one is ever going to like everything he says since it's part of his job to be controversial. The show took a stand in defending their comedic values and did not succumb to negative comments from the public.
In any online crisis, if the offense is bad enough, the situation must be rectified. But be careful giving in to the immediate public backlash simply because you can't stand the heat and you're worried about what people will say.
People will always have an opinion, and there's always going to be someone out there who disagrees with you. You're never going to win over the entire Internet. Ultimately what matters is to stay true to the organization's values when dealing with a controversy.
To be successful, your business must stand for something. If you're not sure of what you stand for, you run the risk of letting others, and the loudest of angry online commenters, define your brand.
Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.