What Lurks Behind Chrysler's F-bomb? Social-Media Turf War

Tweet-Slip Slammed Detroit Drivers, Got Shop Canned and Showed Disconnect Between Marketing and PR

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It was, one could say, a WTF moment.

When an employee of New Media Strategies accidentally dropped the f-bomb last week in a tweet from client Chrysler's Twitter account, it didn't take long for the tweet to get noticed -- and for the agency to get fired. Another example of how social media can go wrong? Sure. Beyond that, the whole affair shines a light on a continuing turf battle between marketing and communications departments over who should own and manage social media.

The infamous tweet
The infamous tweet

The dustup began March 9, 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."

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 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.)

Policy aside, the incident illustrates the common divide over social-media control by marketing and communications. Early in the day after the tweet went out, Chrysler's communications team was still grappling to get hold of the details to answer bloggers and media, 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. 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.

Chrysler would not make any marketing executives available to talk about the episode. On its website, Pete Snyder, CEO of NMS, said the agency "regrets this unfortunate incident. ... 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 insiders at Chrysler that NMS was in a tough spot before its employee dropped the f-bomb. Mr. Snyder himself was said to have irked the automaker last month for talking about the company's two-minute Super Bowl ad starring Eminem the Friday before the game on a news program after the client had sworn staff and agency to secrecy until kickoff.

That 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, Chrysler Communications staffer Ed Garstens 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 we 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."

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