The Vanguard View: Insight for Association Websites

A Tale of Two Tweets - Part I

Posted by Ray van Hilst on Wed, Mar 23, 2011


Oops - A Social Media GaffeIt was the best of tweets. It was the worst of tweets.  With respect to Charles Dickens, tweets aren’t classic literature.  But the emotions, plots and aftermath of tweets often make for great stories… and important lessons.

Obviously, two of the most talked about tweets (at least in social media “expert” circles) in the past months are in this realm – the mistweets by @redcross and @chryslerautos.

In case you missed them, here are the back-stories on each: Red Cross Blog/Twitter Faux Pas and Jalopnik/Chrysler Loses Control of Twitter Account.

After the Red Cross mistweet, my peer network agreed the Red Cross’s response was classy and set the bar for others to follow.  Yet despite a case study in action with strong support for the Red Cross and the mistweeting staffer, we saw the exact opposite reaction from Chrysler ending in the firing of both the employee and agency representing the brand.

So other than content (for which using the F-bomb in a public forum is generally inappropriate unless you are a stand up comedian), what explains the radical differences in the responses and aftermath?  Let’s start with a closer look at the two organizations to understand how they arrived at such different reactions.

Fundamentally Different Personalities (and Missions)

The Red Cross is all about humanitarian care and relationships.  The staff is driven by a mission to help and nurture.  By contrast, Chrysler is a for-profit company focusing on the bottom line and shareholder value.  Quite simply: one gives, the other sells.

Beyond this skin-deep comparison are more important differences including the stakeholders and their investment in the organization, executive compensation (and thus motivations and drivers), and internal politics.  This creates two very worlds for social media activities to take place in.

But even more important is the difference in how the two organizations manage their social media – in-house versus out-sourced vendor.

The Red Cross has internalized social media management with active, full time internal staff managing social activity and engaging with all levels of the organization and their audiences.  This makes the platforms a key vehicle for engaging and informing supporters or those in need.

In contrast, Chrysler has outsourced social media management to an agency.  This approach says “social media is an expense item in the marketing budget to be managed just like any other media campaign.”  In fact, a scan of Chrysler’s tweets show a focus on tweets written to support promotional efforts.

I doubt the (outsourced) individuals managing the account are on a first name basis with a mix of senior level executives and line workers to get a deep insight into the personality and happenings of the company – and thus affects how deep they can truly engage their audiences beyond promotional “attaboys.”

Community Support and Response (or lack thereof)

After Red Cross’s mistweet, the online world had a collective giggle and understood.  Adding to the excitement, Dog Fish Head reveled in the exposure and helped drive donations to the org.

More important, the Red Cross’s community reacted with support for the employee and organization.  This reaction was made possible by Red Cross’s already established, open community who understood the error and stood strong in the face of something potentially embarrassing.  As a sampling, just look at the comments in Mashable’s recap.  Almost two months after the incident, #gettingslizzerd is synonymous with the Red Cross and how to handle a social media gaffe.

By comparison, the Chrysler tweet was met with borderline derision.  The website Jalopnik that initially reported on the error has archived it for all to see and comments on many blog posts about the issue range from feeling sorry for the employee who was fired to taking cheap shots at Chrysler’s entire company (one comment on Jalopnik even said “Our car company was compromised earlier this decade. We have been taking steps to resolve it.”)

Where one organization’s twitter persona has genuine relationships through real people the other is seen as a corporate mouthpiece for promotional purposes.

The Corporate Gaffe Response

When using the previous differences as a filter, the divergent responses then make perfect sense.

The Red Cross values engagement and support, so they reacted with honesty, humility and care for a hard-working staffer who made an honest mistake.  They had also banked “good community karma” so an errant tweet wasn’t the end of the world. And they understood that considering everything they deal with, an excited, good-natured mistweet isn’t a life-or-death event.

The reaction was a mix of humor, candor and then open admission of what happened – followed by an appropriate realization of what a good thing they had going which was leveraged into action to help the organization’s mission.

By comparison, Chrysler’s vendor-employee was a number on a spreadsheet who may not be known by anyone at corporate.  The reaction was not based on relationships and previous success, but on a budget number and potential fallout.  Additionally, Chrysler represents for many all that is wrong with corporate America and trying to shake the image of a greedy company who took a government bailout.  The political piggy bank is running low.

The first reaction was a lame “we’ve been compromised” excuse, followed by two small blog posts about the issue with “appropriate steps to ensure it does not happen again.”  The hammer then fell on the employee and agency. The end result? Cut the losses, move on and change the story as quickly as you can.

(I don’t buy the “we didn’t fire the employee, the agency did” line. I’ve seen big clients save an employees job before so clearly they didn’t want to intervene.)

While many of us took a collective GASP over Chrysler and hoped they would rise to the example set by the Red Cross, these key differences in the two organizations set the foundation for how they would react.  After taking a closer look at these, the reactions make perfect sense.

So for those of us working in social media on behalf of our clients, organizations and companies, what lessons can we take from this experience?  I’ll save that one for my next post….

Ray van Hilst is Director of Client Strategy and Marketing at Vanguard Technology. Connect with him @rvanhilst or rvanhilst at

Topics: web strategy, Ray van Hilst, Uncategorized, twitter, social media, crisis communications, red cross, Vendor Relations

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