Chrysler Splits With New Media Strategies Over F-Bomb Tweet

On Company Blog, Automaker Says It's Taking Matter Seriously, Not Being Overly Sensitive

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When an employee of New Media Strategies dropped the f-bomb in a tweet from client Chrysler's Twitter account March 9, it might have been chalked up to one of those things that can happen to someone on a bad day. Instead, Chrysler decided not to renew its contract with the agency.

The dustup began yesterday when one of the agency's staffers tweeted from the @ChryslerAutos account: "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive."

The employee was fired by NMS, and today Chrysler went a step further by saying it would not renew the shop's contract. But beyond that, the whole affair may have shined a light on a continuing turf battle between marketing and communications departments over who should own and manage social media.

According to those familiar with the episode, the employee thought he or she was logged in to a private Twitter account rather than Chrysler's account. The employee had access, along with a team of other agency and client-side people, and wrote tweets throughout the day as part of his or her job.

After the expletive went out, it was quickly deleted, but had already been retweeted by a few Chrysler followers and spread to blogs. "Even if it had gone out under their private account, we would have had issues with it as it indirectly referenced a Chrysler ad and violated the company's policy about texting while driving," said Chrysler spokeswoman Dianna Guitierrez. (Ad Age was unable to determine whether the tweet went out while the employee was indeed driving.)

Turf battles over social media between marketing and communications have been an issue at the automaker -- and other companies -- for a few years. Early in the day after the tweet went out, Chrysler's communications team was grappling to get hold of the details of the episode after bloggers and media began calling, in part because Chrysler's marketing department controls Facebook and Twitter social-media accounts that are "consumer facing." The communications department has separate Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr accounts that are meant to be "media facing."

Many companies say the divide only serves turf and budget wars, not the brands. "All that has blurred, so it's critical for communications and marketing to be coordinating and cooperating all the time," said Stuart Schorr, VP-communications and public affairs at Jaguar-Land Rover North America. One of the issues creating the turf war, he noted, is which department gets the budget.

For Jaguar Land Rover, for example, all tweets and Facebook posts are cleared by a small internal communications group, said Mr. Schorr. Land Rover's marketing agency, Wunderman Worldwide, manages Land Rover's branded Twitter account, but all posts are cleared by communications. Only one outside agency person has access to the Twitter accounts, and that person is only a functionary to post pre-approved content. Communications runs websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts branded InteractiveJaguar and InteractiveLandRover. Those websites were created and are managed by Icon Interactive, Ann Arbor, Mich.

"My belief is that communications is better trained and oriented to deal with the real-time and back-and-forth nature of social media, but we have a very collaborative and coordinated effort with marketing," said Mr. Schorr. "But it is such a big and popular area, with a lot of money going into it, that I recognize it is a pie that marketing and communications departments at companies are going to continue to wrestle over."

Chrysler would not make any marketing executives available to talk about the episode. On its website, Pete Snyder, CEO of MNS, said the agency "regrets this this unfortunate incident. It certainly doesn't accurately reflect the overall high-quality work we have produced for Chrysler. We respect their decision and will work with them to ensure an effective transition of this business going forward."

He also declined to comment on reports from three people at Chrysler that NMS was already in a tough spot before its employee dropped the F-bomb. Those insiders said Mr. Snyder himself got in hot water with the automaker last month for talking about the company's two-minute Super Bowl ad starring Eminem the Friday before the game on a nationally televised news program after the client had sworn staff and agency to secrecy until kickoff.

That Super Bowl ad introduced the new tagline for Chrysler, "Imported From Detroit," and is part of a brand positioning the company is building around "The Motor City" and American values and pride.

The tweet was seen in even harsher light given that campaign strategy. In the automaker's communication blog to the media today, Chrysler Communications staffer Ed Garsten wrote, "The tweet denigrated drivers in Detroit and used the fully spelled-out F-word. It was obviously meant to be posted on the person's personal Twitter account, and not the Chrysler Brand account where it appeared. So why were so sensitive? That commercial featuring the Chrysler 200, Eminem and the City of Detroit wasn't just an act of salesmanship. This company is committed to promoting Detroit and its hard-working people. The reaction to that commercial, the catchphrase 'imported from Detroit,' and the overall positive messages it sent has been volcanic."

Chrysler said NMS's contract would not be renewed for the balance of 2011, and that the agency will help it transition. One possibility for Chrysler may be turning to its media agency, Universal McCann, which has a social media unit. Doner, Southfied, Mich., which handles Chrysler's retail advertising, could also compete for it.

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