Monday, April 20, 2009

PR and Damage Control in the Age of Twitter

Ashton, Oprah, Dominos, and Susan. Names that have one important thing in common - they were all involved in seminal social media events. I don't know if last week was the tipping point for the phenomenon we call social media, or not, but it sure felt like it to me.

Gaga over a middle-aged, plump, frizzy-haired goddess.
On Saturday, April 11th, the by now galactically famous episode of "Britain's Got Talent" aired in the UK and the glorious Susan Boyle entranced an audience of skeptics with a voice of extraordinary beauty. The official YouTube posting of the performance appeared almost immediately and garnered over 800,000 viewings in 24 hours. By Wednesday, the video had been viewed 5.6 million times and, as of today, the video reports over 32 million views. According to an article in Mashable, however, tracking company, Visible Measures, that tracks over 150 video sharing sites, counted 93.2 million views on Sunday and predicted that number would hit over 100 million today. Although the press covered the YouTube frenzy, it was e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook that spread the word, person to person. The kinds of information that are typically spread in this way, like jokes, urban legends, apocryphal stories, and corporate blunders, have never quite hit the numbers necessary show the footdraggers that we are no longer operating in beta - social media has launched. But after witnessing how quickly the world can coalesce into a massive and powerful communication organism, only the staunchest Luddite can deny the shift. And they do so at their own peril.

Ummm, make mine without cheese.
And peril is exactly what Dominos Pizza found itself in last Monday when two astoundingly stupid Dominos employees posted a video on YouTube showing one of them stuffing cheese up his nose before he used it to garnish a pizza, among other health code violations. That evening, Tim McIntyre, a Dominos spokesperson, was alerted to the video by someone who'd seen it online. When company executives learned about the video the next day, they made a fatefully disastrous decision to do nothing in the hopes of not fueling the fire. With no presence or experience in social media, they were sadly unaware that information is no longer controlled by corporations or by the press. Technology has set it free, put it in the hands of the public, and it dances to its own tune these days. There are new rules for corporate communication, and the rules say the conversation is happening, with or without you. If you don't proactively own it, someone else will. On Wednesday, with its reputation damaged and perception of quality in negative numbers, Dominos opened a Twitter account and posted a video on YouTube of it's CEO, Patrick Doyle, offering a heartfelt apology. It's a start, but when Mr. McIntyre was quoted in a NY Times article the next day saying, “Well, we were doing and saying things, but they weren’t being covered in Twitter,” I suspect there's still a bit of a learning curve. Social media isn't broadcast. If the company isn't using it to monitor and participate in conversations, they're missing the point.

Dude, where's your tweeps?
Late Thursday night, Ashton Kutcher became the first person on the planet to snag one million followers on Twitter, beating out his rival, CNN, by only a few hours and a couple of thousand followers. And what does that have to do with anything? Well, look at it this way: A 31-year old college drop-out actor, famous for producing a show about pulling pranks on celebs has succeeded in aggregating a willing listening audience of 1 million people, while the MBA suits at Dominos, who launched their Twitter account with the obtuse name of dpzinfo, have managed, in the midst of the most press they've ever had, to only round up 1,333 followers. And Oprah? She opened her Twitter account on Friday. As of today, 3 days later, she has 424,986 followers.

And now, on an entirely personal note, a message to Susan Boyle: My dear, you sing for all of the underestimated, ignored, written-off women of the world. Your voice is an instrument played with unimaginable grace and purity. But what moves me to tears is you, as you stand there, sloughing off 47 years of being invisible, confident in your gift and knowing that, at last, you are on the right stage, at the right time. You knew what you had, and now all the world is gaga over a middle-aged, plump, frizzy-haired goddess. Brava!

social media, Susan Boyle, Ashton Kutcher, Dominos Pizza, Oprah, You Tube, Twitter, Facebook