Pity the poor social networking marketer: Your fails, be they on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere, are instantly transmitted to a vast audience and forever on display, whether you yank them or not.
This week’s poster child? AT&T, who while observing the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, crossed the line of good taste. AT&T took to Twitter on the 12th anniversary of the event with a Photoshopped image of the annual “Tribute in Light” display at the World Trade Center site, as seen through the camera of a (wisely unbranded) smartphone. “Never forget” was the caption, and sure enough, the Internet immediately saw to it that AT&T won’t – but not as the telecom giant intended.
AT&T pulled the pic after the Twitterverse erupted with criticism, calls for boycott, and threats to switch providers as the company was accused of using 9/11 to market their phones. The company tweeted a tepid mea culpa, apologizing “to anyone who felt our post was in poor taste. The image was solely meant to pay respect to those affected by the 9/11 tragedy.” That kind of apology puts the burden on those offended, rather than the offender – not the proper way to own up to a blunder, and only further highlighting the initial gaffe.
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to AT&T, which almost earns a second fail for how it responded to the first.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Murderous terrorist attacks are not a branding opportunity. AT&T could have done a respectable, perhaps even poignant tribute to 9/11 and “those affected” if it had simply left the phone out of the image. The product tie-in changed everything. Then, by limiting its apology to “anyone who felt” the post was in poor taste, AT&T ducked taking responsibility for its mistake. An upfront acknowledgement of bad taste and an unqualfied apology would have likely put an immediate stop to the damage and maybe even earned AT&T a measure of respect for its candor. Perhaps they’ll remember that next year.