The Fear of Screwing Up: Social Media, Social Responsibility, and a Brand’s Obligation

colorado aurora theater shootingsI woke up on a Friday morning not too long ago to a phone that was exploding with voicemails and text messages. Up until July 2, I lived a stark half mile from Aurora, Colorado, and am a lifelong live-action comic book flick junkie. Many of my friends and family didn’t yet have the news that I’d moved 30 miles away to Boulder, Colorado.

They just wanted to know that, for once, I hadn’t gone to see a movie like The Dark Knight Rises on opening night. Thankfully, I had not. But as a professional who makes her living as a columnist, author, and advisor to brands regarding online communications practices, my state’s recent tragedy has become a case study in both exemplary and abominable behavior by brands far and wide.

The Fear of Screwing Up

A blog on the Harvard Business Review posted a study this weekend with some not-so-shocking statistics on brand attitudes towards social media. Thirty-five percent of brands indicated that they had not yet adopted social into their organizations because of fear. Given the social buffoonery that proliferates the digital space on a daily basis, it’s only compounded in the wake of tragedy. Brands are flat-out afraid of what their employees will say and do. In the case of my state’s tragedy, there are two incidents that shine as raving examples of what not to do.

First, there was Celeb Boutique. A fashion brand based out the U.K., they hijacked the #Aurora hash tag and latched Kim Kardashian onto it. You’ve likely seen it by now, but here it is in case you need some catching up.

celeb boutique Aurora

Given that the theater shooting incident was international news by the time I woke at 6 A.M. Mountain Time and Paris has canceled its previously scheduled premier that evening by noon my time, this was inexcusable. A simple search for the hash tag would have slain this misguided brand’s ego-fueled dragon and protected it from bashings on Gawker, the Los Angeles Times, TechCrunch, and countless others.

On the flip side, public relations professionals got a special dose of special when we opened up our afternoon queries email from HARO ( Apparently, E! Online was trying to ferret out news sources to say whether or not violence and shooting in movies contributed to the Aurora theater shootings. Reading it, I was sickened that a celebrity-laden tabloid-style news outlet was looking to boost its broadcast with a sensationalized story about the tragedy that had just rained down upon my community. While not social media in the “everyone can see it” sense, it was an action trying to fuel a story that would inevitably be shared – solicited under the guise of concern when all the while the concern was ratings and click through traffic.

These two brands – they screwed up. One screwed the pooch and queued up a very public lambasting while the other screwed itself with every HARO subscriber who looked at that query and thought, “Will you stop at nothing?”

It’s no wonder brands fear social media – brand audiences are ruthless and in the instance of the theater shootings, the community merciless when brands show disrespect to hearts, families, and neighbors who will never wake up feeling the same way again after Friday morning. But there’s a better path to alleviate the fear, I think (and one of which my fellow Coloradans would heartily approve).

A Bit on Social Responsibility

When a brand acts in a way their audience doesn’t expect, it will always be subject to criticism. Brands are stewards – protectors – of their audiences. If you’re in charge of running a brand’s voice in the digital realm, you have three responsibilities:

  • Protect your audience – this is first and foremost, as they are the reason you get to wake up and do what it is you do every day.
  • Stay informed – there’s this snazzy thing called the internet and you can find the most amazing things on it. You are trusted by your audience to deliver news, nuggets of information, and all that is the latest and greatest. You’ve got no business writin’ if ya ain’t readin’ what’s going on in the world.
  • Protect your brand – this is more easily accomplished if you take the first two responsibilities to heart. When you protect your audience, they will protect you. When you keep them informed while protecting them, you build trust, which translates to an emotional investment in your brand. That’s the best protection you could ever have (and you can’t buy it – you have to earn it).

Local news and radio outlets throughout Colorado displayed the best examples of social responsibility. Instead of blasting sensationalized, breaking headlines and rolling through morning music programming per usual, something incredible happened. The morning shows became outlets for public sentiment, with call after call letting Coloradans know they weren’t alone with their feelings. News stations and radio alike consistently shared hotline numbers that concerned friends and family could call in advance of the victims’ names being released. We became a community banded together by information – Colorado media became a brand that protected their audience, kept them informed, and in turn, elevated themselves above the shock tactics and opportunistic headlines.

Colorado became re-invested in Colorado on Friday.

The Takeaway

I am grateful that no one I knew opted to see the movie premier in Aurora last Friday night. My heart is heavy for those who will never view something so simple and exhilarating as going to a movie in a positive light again. But there lies beneath this tragedy a beautiful lesson for brands (and perhaps states and nations) to glean regarding the power of community, and ultimately, the obligation we have to those who compose it.

We protect our own – to the best of our ability. While we can’t plan for every contingency and frankly, whack-job that will cause us headaches and heartaches, we can build an infrastructure that will support our community’s weight should an unwelcomed day come. To operate out of fear means that we let the bad guy win before he even tries to bring us down. Instead, let’s look to ignore the idiots, the insensitive, those who want to step on us while they rise to whatever “top” it is they envision.

Representative Ed Perlmutter, the Representative for this Aurora district, said it best, perhaps – and something that applies not only to our community, but perhaps your community (your brand) as well: “Colorado is not a violent place, but we have some violent people. We are a strong and resilient community, and we will lean on each other in the days, weeks and months to come.”

As that’s what a community does. We lean on one another when outside influences disrupt and we come back stronger.  That’s not unique to us here in Colorado, though we’ve risen from Columbine and we will rise from this, too. It’s just what communities do.

Just some thoughts from a live action comic book flick fan and branding consultant in Colorado.

James Johnson
James Johnson

Another great piece, Erika. You have a talent for balancing a heartfelt narrative with very useful information.

Geoff MacDonald
Geoff MacDonald

An awesome piece and, as a fellow Coloradian who grew up in Aurora, thanks!

April Johnson
April Johnson

Brilliant, compassionate, yet not wussy, and dead on, as always. Thank you Erika!

The Redhead
The Redhead

Glad you enjoyed, April -- sending a wave from Colorado in your direction!