What We Can Learn About Social Media Marketing from The Onion

It was a rather shocking tweet. Someone who was in charge of The Onion’s Twitter account basically called 9-year-old actress and Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis the C-word.

It was so reprehensibly awful and terrible that Twitter just beat the holy bejeezus out of The Onion for it. Within an hour, they deleted the tweet. (This was remarkable in itself, given the fact that these guys never back down or apologize for anything.)

A LOT of angry discussions on whether The Onion should have apologized or not. The angrier ones seem to be on the

A LOT of angry discussions on whether The Onion should have apologized or not.

This morning, even as the Internet was storming Castle Onion with pitchforks and torches, their CEO, Steve Hannah, even went so far as to post an apology to their Facebook page.

Dear Readers,

On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.

Sincerely,
Steve Hannah
CEO
The Onion

From a social media marketing standpoint, this gives rise to a bigger question: when do you blame an entire company for the acts of a single person? When does one person’s views reflect the entire company? And should they ever?

Let’s face it, what this unnamed person did was reprehensible. You just don’t call little girls that word. (Actually, you don’t call any women that word, but there’s a very wide line between being a sexist a-hole and the worst person in the world, and the unnamed person managed to keep one foot planted on either side of it.)

Now The Onion is bearing the brunt of that one person’s poor judgment.

In a lot of cases, people will forgive a company for the missteps of a single person. If you have a bad waitstaff experience at your favorite restaurant, you don’t boycott the entire restaurant. If you received a damaged package from your favorite online bookstore, you don’t stop ordering books. Yet, there are thousands of people who have un-liked and un-followed The Onion on all their social properties, because of a single tweet by a single person.

But this isn’t entirely unexpected. During the presidential election, when someone from a candidate’s past 30 years earlier does something mildly offensive, the other side will scream that this proves that candidate is the anti-Christ or a fascist. When the CEO of a corporation says or does something awful, consumers scream that this kind of attitude pervades the halls of that company.

There’s an awful lot of screaming going on, and people are understandably and justifiably outraged. What this unnamed person did was awful, but the entire organization didn’t sit down at a table and vote on what to tweet.

Are people overreacting or are we justified in screaming at The Onion? Did one bad apple spoil the entire bunch, or should we look at their entire body of work, and forgive them in the end?

This Shouldn’t Stop Companies From Using Social Media

The problem is that whenever anything like this happens — at least the problem for social media professionals like me, Jay Baer, and Doug Karr — is that potential clients look at this and say, “See, we can’t trust our employees not to do something stupid and boneheaded like this.”

It makes our job harder, because they’re worried that their punk intern just out of college is going to start tweeting about his drunken antics at his cousin’s wedding. Or she’s going to launch into some profanity-laced tirade about how her basketball team couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat.

So we have to remind these clients of a few things:

  1. If you have employees like this, you have a hiring problem, and that’s your fault, not social media’s. Those people would act like this even if Twitter had never been invented.
  2. You need to hire people with several years of experience and common sense to run your social media campaigns (these two traits are sometimes mutually exclusive in some people).
  3. You already trust employees to count and handle your money, take trips to faraway places, and even answer the phone without you hovering over them. You need to trust employees on social media this same way.
  4. You need to have a clear-cut social media policy about things you cannot say, words you cannot use, and ideas you cannot convey. At least then people will know why you fired them for violating numbers 1, 2, and 3.

For companies thinking about social media marketing, you need to think about these things:

Will people do stupid things? Yes. It’s in our nature.

Did you hire those people? Yes, because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Did you hire them to do those stupid things? No. Otherwise, that would make you as stupid as them.

Will people blame you for it anyway? Yes. Because we all want someone to be outraged at.

Does this mean you shouldn’t do something, like use social media? No. Because people do stupid stuff with all kinds of technology, but that doesn’t mean we don’t 1) use computers, 2) use fax machines, 3) use phones, 4) use cars, and 5) hire people.

We still do all those other things, we just make sure they’re used properly.

That’s how it needs to go with social media. More than half the country is using it. More than half the country is expecting you to be on it. And despite the bone-headedness of some people, it’s still a good and decent place to reach an audience.

People make mistakes. Big, goofy, bone-headed, dumbass mistakes. That’s all just part of the rich tapestry of the business world, and everyone does it. Some are just worse and more crass than others.

The question is, will you stick your head in the sand because of what someone else did, or will you embrace the latest technology and learn from other peoples’ mistakes?

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    About Erik Deckers

    is the President of Professional Blog Service, a ghost blogging and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He has been blogging since 1997, and has been a published writer for more than 26 years. He is a newspaper humor columnist, appearing in 10 papers around Indiana, and in The American Reporter. Erik co-authored No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech). His latest co-authored effort, The Owned Media Doctrine, was released in 2013.

    Comments

    1. Yup.

      What’s most surprising about this incident is that The Onion hasn’t really done a good job of explaining themselves.

      Sure, the comment was offensive. Much of what The Onion does is offensive.

      But this comment was extraordinarily offensive. And here’s the crucial part: it wasn’t very funny.

      Most of what they write goes through an editorial process to ensure that it’s more hilarious than it is upsetting. But it’s likely the tweet was fired off by one person without the feedback of others.

      If they were to reveal this, they might be better off.

    2. Fax machines? :-)