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Fifty shades of ignorant: why you cannot control social media

fifty shadesIf you haven’t yet figured out that you cannot control social media, where have you been sleeping for the last ten years? Hey, Fifty Shades publicists, I’m talking to you.

Here’s the simple syllogism:

  1. Social media is vibrant because anyone can say anything.
  2. Haters feed on each other.
  3. Therefore, when you create a social media event, it amplifies your haters.

Naturally, these principles apply most powerfully to unmoderated social media, like Twitter. But “control” is an illusion: dialogue in moderated spaces always spills over into unmoderated platforms like Twitter and Tumblr where you can’t control it.

Social media disasters happen all the time. But it’s a whole lot worse when you create them yourself. Any marketing professional who fails to understand this in 2015 should quit.

Because it’s fun to make fun of social media amateurs, let’s look at two recent incidents and what we can learn from them. The lesson here is simple: the more haters you have, the more dangerous social media is for you.

EL James ends up in bondage to Twitter

On Monday, EL James visited Twitter’s UK headquarters and initiated a Twitter chat on the hashtag #AskELJames. To understand what happened next, you should know that:

  • Fifty Shades of Grey, while extremely popular, is the most poorly written bestseller I’ve ever seen. It’s repetitive, ignores the most obvious principles of fiction, and has hundreds of errors that would make any competent copyeditor spit up their coffee.
  • This series of novels glorifies abuse. Even S&M enthusiasts find it objectionable. It centers around a non-consensual, relationship in which the heroine submits herself fully to a powerful man, feels humiliated and degraded, and then gets off on it.
  • EL James adapted Fifty Shades of Grey from fanfiction she wrote about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.

The point is not whether the novels are any good. The point is that many people share these objections and many of them are on Twitter. Any famous person (or their publicist) who starts a Twitter discussion knowing this is just plain stupid. The results are entirely predictable. And pretty funny.


Bobby Jindal’s haters get a platform

Louisiana governor and Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal is controversial. He won’t say if he believes in evolution. And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriages are legal everywhere, he said that court clerks with religious objections don’t have to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. His SuperPAC appeared to think this made him a perfect candidate for a Twitter chat.

Once again, it was easy to predict what would happen next.


Screwing up on social media is worse than it appears

Why should you care if you or your client get flayed alive on social media? It’s just your haters feeding each other, right? And surely its worth it if your supporters get a chance to interact.

Not quite.

Once you screw up, the news media runs with it. Google news tallied 108,000 articles about #AskELJames, including Buzzfeed, Us Weekly, and The Washington Post. Bobby Jindal got roasted on Salon.com and on NOLA.com, the site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

At that point the story is not just about what your haters think, but about how bad your PR is. That’s not helping your message.

The lesson is simple: if you’ve got lots of haters and you don’t intend to face up to their questions honestly, don’t publicize a fun place for them to gather on social media. People who fantasize that they can control social media are amateurs

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  1. I think a good number of PR firms operate on the assumption that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Given that controversy and extreme views get much more engagement and social juice than middle-of-the-road positions, it might make sense to do Twitter (or reddit, or any other easily combustible medium) for these guys. I still think the JP Morgan debacle was much more impeachable from a marcom standpoint 🙂

  2. Your 50 shades article is why I am so glad to get your emails. I share them on my facebook page and usually get a lot of response. Thank you for posting these articles. You are helping my writing daily.


  3. I saw that 50 Shades fiasco, and the tweets were hilarious and brutal, sometimes at the same time.

    The most egregious blunder from the E.L. James camp was to block questions they found undesirable. Allegedly, they blocked tweets from abuse victims and activists, at least until the onslaught got really bad. If you’re going to engage, you must ACTUALLY ENGAGE.