Earlier this year Grey Germany put out three condom ads for Doc Morris pharmacies. They were attempts to wittily imply that the human race could have been spared three uber-butchers of the past century (Mao Tze-Tung, Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden), and the horror and suffering they brought, by a simple condom (a Doc Morris condom, natch). The humble rubber as a superhero and savior of humanity -- there definitely is potential for some wonderful, dark, absurdist humor in that idea.
I can totally see how a certain young, urbane sector of German society could find these ads really quite funny and compelling -- as they did the suicide-themed Pepsi One ads done last year that offended so many outside the target demographic.
Now, unfortunately for Grey and for Doc Morris, not everyone thought the "Evil Sperm" ads were funny. Quite a few people thought they were racist, insensitive, offensive and inappropriate -- and now those adjectives are associated with Doc Morris pharmacies in people's heads.
That's the way it is with humor -- sometimes you nail it, sometimes you bomb. Humor is powerful in both directions.
A simple allegory for old-media folks who still don't get it: Standing up and telling a fart joke while drinking with friends in your rec room = low risk. Standing up and telling a fart joke while drinking with friends at someone's wedding party = high risk.
With internet advertising and PR, you are always at someone's wedding party; you are never safely behind closed doors. If you try to be loud and draw attention to yourself, as advertisers and PR folk generally do, the people at the next table are going to hear it -- and if you're testing the limits of good taste with your humor, the odds are that those uptight grandmas and squares and stuffed shirts who just don't appreciate your super-edgy wit are going to think poorly of you and perhaps even whack you with their cash-filled Vera Bradley handbags.
Here are some realities of the media world of 2009 that old-school advertising and PR would be well served to note:
- You can't expect your messaging to stay contained within your target demographic. The information you put out will spread, and that spread is beyond your control. There are only two reasons why information doesn't spread once it is out: a) people are just uninterested in your message, b) it's in a language people don't speak (which is really just a subset of "a," frankly). Note: Images like the "Evil Sperm" ads are language-less, so they will jump the language barrier with glee.
- You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. There is no memory hole with the internet. Book-burning is so 20th century. Babelsplatz was yesterday. If you put it out, it is there to stay (even if folks like Ads of the World are willing to censor).
- Hiding and praying it will go away rarely works. Like every good stand-up comic knows, if your routine is bombing, the only thing you can do is keep talking. It's double or nothing. The only treatment for unfortunate speech is more speech.
So, what does this mean concretely? How does the modern PR/advertising flack deal with the fact that we live in a world where toothpaste gets irretrievably out of the tube and will probably ooze into places we never wanted to have it? Well ...
- Craft your message with the knowledge that it will likely go where you didn't intend it to go. One thing this could mean is don't do messages that, while they may resonate with one of your customer demographics, are bound to offend others. Grey's "Evil Sperm" and Pepsi's suicide ads fall into that category. Alternately, if you can't resist putting out offensive stuff, because it's just so incredibly funny and will make your targets buy and your colleagues green with professional envy, then have your mea culpa marketing strategy ready in advance to take advantage of the probable result -- a social-media shitstorm -- as Pepsi did with its suicide ads (more on mea culpa marketing below).
- Don't humiliate yourself by begging (or worse, demanding) bloggers to go back and censor your screw-up. As a blogger, I say deleting posts is cool only in the rarest of circumstances -- generally only when an innocent individual will be hurt or put in danger by the information -- never when it's just embarrassing to a company. Trying to get bloggers to censor information is just going to offend them further, make them question your ethics and increase the chance that they will react to you with animosity.
- Have your mea culpa machine ready to roll. If you offend with your communications, keep communicating -- your best hope is to dilute your screw-up with evidence that you really are upstanding folks who made a little mistake. If you are really good at this, you can jujitsu the negative into positive and come out well ahead, with free positive publicity and goodwill among influencers and your target markets. How do you do this?
- Listen to those criticizing you and understand how you offended -- this means tracking all negative mentions and understanding their gripes.
- Figure out what you are sorry for, what you are not sorry for and prepare your response accordingly. Be honest. Don't be arrogant, though -- if you're not sorry enough, or for the stuff you should be, it's likely the social-media sphere will make you truly sorry if you screw up your apology as well.
- Connect with your detractors personally and as a real human being. This means actually reading their posts about you; figuring out who they are and what their perspective and values are; and engaging them on their terms, in their language and with a convincing apology -- and above all, as a living, breathing, fellow human being, not as a faceless corporation or as a smooth-talking, snakeskin-suit PR wanker.
- Connect publicly with your detractors' negative coverage of you. Comment on the relevant articles where appropriate, write your own articles on the subject if appropriate, guest blog a response/apology on a detractor's site where appropriate. Be smart though. Screw this part up, and you may just fan the flames high again, rather than douse them with the cooling water of an effective mea culpa.
- Maintain the relationships going forward. Now that you've invested the energy into converting a detractor into a friend, or at least a "tolerater," maintain that relationship with communication -- share information, ask guidance, get feedback. These former detractors can save you from future screw-ups, or at least are likely to deal with you a bit more sympathetically the next time you blow it.
In essence, it's quite simple, just remember these three things: On the internet, you are always talking to the whole world, whether you intend to or not; be cognizant of who your message will offend and decide deliberately if you are willing to offend them; and if you must offend, have your mea culpa machine ready to go before you pull the trigger.
This is the media world of 2009 -- it's simple transparency and good human relations. There's really no excuse for blowing it.
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Chris Abraham, president of the digital-PR firm Abraham Harrison, is a blogger who specializes in social-media marketing with a focus on blogger outreach, blogger engagement and search-reputation management. Chris lives in Berlin and Washington.