Case Study: Context and responsiveness in social media

In a world where 140-character posts fly through cyberspace with hardly a thought, it’s difficult to fathom the impact a seemingly innocent tweet or retweet might have on a person, a company or even a brand. Twitter miscues become fodder for the social masses far too frequently.

For a young woman in Washington, D.C., a simple tweet – and the resulting modified retweet – caused a stir for more than two weeks for both her and one of the largest brands in journalism. How the situation unfolded and was resolved (or left unresolved, depending on how you look at it) is an important lesson in context and responsiveness.

***

It all started out as an innocent tweet on the afternoon of Aug. 22.

As Kaitie Kovach checked her Twitter feed early the next morning, she noticed this tweet:

At first, Kovach said she was flattered by the mention. As a 2010 graduate of Marquette University with a major in journalism, being noticed by an institution like the AP Stylebook – the sacred book of journalists – was an honor.

But after waking up a bit, she said she started to feel differently.

“At first I was friendly about it,” Kovach, 25, said recently via email. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how badly their modification could reflect on an excellent student newspaper and my alma mater.”

You see, Kovach wasn’t talking about the AP Stylebook. She was talking about the in-house stylebook of the Marquette Tribune, the student newspaper at her alma mater. As copy chief of the paper during her senior year, one of her responsibilities was to edit and update the stylebook over the summer. Which would explain why she still had a copy of it in her files.

Kovach’s tweet had been taken out of context in order to promote a product. A product she wasn’t even referring to.

And now her tweet, out of context, made it look like the Marquette student newspaper didn’t have copies of the AP Stylebook in its newsroom.

“I didn’t specifically mention the Trib’s account in my original tweet, but I do mention that I’m a Marquette alum in my Twitter bio, so it wouldn’t be hard to figure out,” she said. “I’m very proud of the fact that I went to Marquette and worked at the Trib and I would hate for some poor editing to reflect badly on any of the students currently working there and producing a great paper.”

So, she returned to Twitter to try to correct the situation.

And she waited for a response.

***

Lesson No. 1: Context matters

Unfortunately, taking content out of context happens far too frequently online, especially in the world of 140-character Twitter.

Just because the words are published online doesn’t mean that the same rules don’t apply. Taking someone else’s words – or content including videos, audio clips and/or images – out of context is wrong, especially by journalistic or marketing standards.

Here are some suggestions to avoid falling into a similar situation with your brand’s social media accounts:

When in doubt, ask: If you want to use someone else’s words to promote your product, consider asking his or her permission first. Yes, social media is a platform of immediacy. But it’s always better to be safe and accurate than fast. If you would ask someone permission to use their comments as a testimonial on your website, why wouldn’t you ask permission to use someone’s words on Twitter as well?

Read carefully: If you’re doing a search on Twitter for a specific keyword – in this case, “stylebook” – make sure you read the tweets that appear in the queue very carefully. If you don’t know specifically what the person is referring to, play it safe and choose another option. Never assume.

***

After the morning’s events had unfolded, Kovach headed to her job as a researcher in the Washington, D.C., area and continued with her day.

“I had assumed that because of Twitter’s instantaneous nature I would get a response from the AP Stylebook account fairly quickly,” Kovach said.

But as the day wore on, AP still hadn’t responded.

She posted on Facebook about the situation, where she encouraged her friends to chime in on the subject. She also sent a couple of direct meesages (which are private) to the AP Stylebook account that day as well.

Twenty-four hours passed. Still no response.

Several days passed. Still no response.

Kovach said she became increasingly frustrated by the lack of response and had started to consider the entire situation a lost cause.

Several fellow other Twitter followers, most of whom were connected to Marquette or the Marquette Tribune in some way, came to Kovach’s aid and joined her cause, also tweeting requests for the modified post to be removed. The number of people upset by the use of the tweet out of context grew.

The weekend passed. Still no response.

In fact, the @APStylebook account didn’t post at all again until the following Monday, Aug.27.

“This made me wonder if that account isn’t monitored very closely, which seems odd for an account with nearly 119,000 followers,” Kovach said.

***

Lesson No. 2: Responsiveness matters.

This is another situation that happens far too frequently in social media.

Many brands, companies and organizations fail to monitor their social media accounts properly. If someone is directly contacting you, whether it’s a post on your company’s Facebook wall or a direct comment using an @ reply on Twitter, it’s something that should be noticed and responded to.

How can you prevent a similar situation from happening to you?

Respond as quickly as possible: In this case, had someone responded to Kovach’s request in a timely fashion, the situation likely wouldn’t have escalated in the way it did. She wouldn’t have had a reason to post it on Facebook and enlist the help of her friends. Think of social media as another channel for customer service.

Have several prepared responses ready: If a complaint is raised by a customer via one of your social media channels, have some prepared responses ready to begin the conversation. A word of caution, however – “prepared” responses are not the same as “formulaic” responses. Consider things like, “I’m sorry to hear of your disappointment. Can you email me at info @companyx.com with more information?” Have several varied conversation starters saved somewhere. That will get the conversation moved from social media to email or a more personal channel.

Have a backup monitor: If the person who is primarily responsible for your brand’s social media accounts is going to be on vacation or away from the office for an extended period of time, letting the social media accounts sit dormant is not an option. Have a contingency plan. The conversation will continue regardless of whether you’re there to hear it or not.

***

Finally, on the afternoon of Sept. 5, two weeks from the date Kovach posted her original tweet, the AP responded.

Kovach retweeted the response verbatim and posted her own thanks.

Kovach said a friend and fellow Marquette Tribune alum posted another tweet that prompted the response from the AP.

An apology had been issued. But the offending tweet that took Kovach’s words out of context was still posted for public consumption. As of the afternoon of Oct. 14, it was still available on the @APStylebook timeline.

“I’m glad they acknowledged the mistake,” Kovach said. “Ideally, I’d like to see the offending tweet deleted, but at this point I’m not going to push for that. They offered me an online subscription as an olive branch, which was unexpected and certainly not my goal.”

Kovach said she received a DM the day after the apology from the AP Stylebook account, saying that the person that monitors and runs the account had been “off the grid for a few days.”

But for Kovach, that additional information didn’t change her opinion.

“I find it shocking that a company that produces an editing tool as widely used as the AP Stylebook wouldn’t hold high editing standards to their social media presences as well,” she said.

An email sent through official media request channels seeking additional information from the Associated Press regarding this situation for the purposes of this case study was not returned.

“As I said in one of my initial response tweets to the modification, if I had meant the AP Stylebook in place of ‘the stylebook,’ I would have said so,” Kovach said. “There’s no reason why I would have a copy of the AP Stylebook in my Google Docs account, so I’m really disappointed in the blatant modification for self-promotion.”

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