Gini Dietrich

Home Depot Crisis: Social Media Requires Being Human

By: Gini Dietrich | November 12, 2013 | 
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Home Depot Crisis- Social Media Requires Being Human

By Gini Dietrich

Last Thursday, Home Depot did some clean-up after an offensive tweet went out from their account.

Sponsors of College GameDay on ESPN, the tweet was meant to drive some engagement and have some fun.

Instead, it was racist and insulting.

The corporation’s main account tweeted, “Which drummer is not like the other?” and accompanied a photo of two African-American men flanking a man wearing a gorilla mask.

Home Depot Racist Tweet

Now look. Monkeys are my favorite animal. When they do human things, it makes me laugh. But the person who thought this was a good idea needs to have their head examined.

In fact, the person (and the agency where they work) was fired.

Home Depot did many of the right things: They deleted the tweet, they issued an apology, they tweeted influential accounts, including the NAACP.

Home Depot Apology

 

Fireable Offense?

Firing the agency can be widely debated, but I think that’s a bit severe.

After all, those of us who help clients manage social media accounts know something like that would never have been tweeted without approval from Home Depot.

It’s very, very rare an agency – and someone who works there – would tweet something without client approval (minus the mistaken tweet from a corporate account instead of the personal one).

But something like this? It was planned as part of the corporation’s sponsorship of College GameDay, which leads me to believe it was approved.

So firing the agency seems like a punishment that far succeeds the crime.

But that’s not really my problem with the whole thing.

My problem is what they did next.

Social Media Requires Being Human

They forgot to be human.

Up to the apology tweet, they did everything right. And then this happened.

Home Depot Apology Tweets

 

I understand they were probably reticent to let anyone tweet without a pre-approved message, but that undos everything they did right before this.

Tweeting the same message to every, single person makes it look like a robot – rather than a human being – is in charge.

It’s not easy. It probably would have taken hours upon hours to get through all of the tweets (and Facebook posts) without the copying and pasting job. But it would have been human.

It certainly is a lot easier to copy/paste, copy/paste, copy/paste, but when you look at the stream above (which is how their account looked for days), how does it make you feel?

Does it give you confidence they know what they’re doing and they’re truly sorry or does it feel disingenuous?

Crisis Communications for Home Depot

There are many things you can learn from this example – both right and wrong.

  1. The Right. They deleted the tweet immediately. They issued an apology. They made a decision to fire the agency. They communicated that decision. They tweeted to influencers and journalists ahead of the story. They had a spokesperson ready to take interviews. They quickly told their story. All of these things were done very, very well.
  2. The Wrong. When something like this happens to you or one of your clients (and it’s highly likely it will), remember to be human in your social media outreach. This is the only thing Home Depot did wrong. It takes more time. You’ll be typing for hours and hours. You may have to gain approval to write apologies customized to each person, but that will go a lot further than the copy and paste job Home Depot did.

All in all, this story flamed out fairly quickly because it was handled so well.

But if there is one thing to take away from how Home Depot handled it all, remember to be human.

 

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • I agree with the firing issue. I guess all depends on how it was approved. What if the idea was pushed by someone who said ‘Seriously this is really funny’ and then it turned out not to be so funny. Would be curious to know how many people tweeted about this. Going to check. BRB.

    • Howie Goldfarb I’ll wait…

      • ginidietrich Howie Goldfarb
        https://twitter.com/HomeDepot/with_replies it’s a lot
        But I guess they don’t tweet weekends or holidays been dark since the 8th. Doing a search for Home Depot I only saw a few about the issue. So probably died down. Until today now that you brought it back into the news 8)

        • Howie Goldfarb Did you do a search of the news? It was pages and pages and pages of it.

        • ginidietrich Howie Goldfarb the news amazes me. When Warren Buffett joined twitter (total IPO stunt) there were 250,000 stories the next day. Every major news outlet. He tweeted 3 times. Never came back. Too many journalists and too much copy space to fill. I just read he sent only one email in his life. Said it wound up in court so he never did it again.

    • CommProSuzi

      Howie Goldfarb The back room deal: If this works you are a genius; if it goes over like a lead balloon, you’re barbecued.  You may be onto something!

  • The firing is definitely a bit severe in my opinion. 
    And while these fumbles and foibles make great blog fodder, I really wonder just how much they’ll impact the bottom line. With a few exceptions (Susan G. Komen, for instance), the dustups on social are often just a tempest in a teacup. Our memories are pretty short for this stuff.

    • jasonkonopinski I agree to a certain extent. I think they’re going to get even more prevalent in a crisis communication program. If you screw up once (Kenneth Cole) and it dies down and then you do it again? You’re screwed (Kenneth Cole). People are MUCH more forgiving when you handle it correctly the first time.

      • ginidietrich I don’t know that I’d put Kenneth Cole into the “screw up” pile, though. As distasteful as I find them, there was strategy behind every one of the Kenneth Cole hashtag jacking tweets. The ‘bad boy” image suits the brand, and the social voice follows that.

  • CommProSuzi

    I had an opposite take. I think it demonstrated Home Depot’s commitment to the individual consumer. Yes, it’s a form tweet, but apologizing in <120 characters isn’t easy. Anyone who uses Twitter should understand that. Anyone who’s received a form letter should understand that it’s an approved message. Plus, how many of those people unfollowed Home Depot and missed the tweet? Home Depot made sure they communicated their apology to those offended enough to tweet. How many posts have I missed?
    To the contrary, I think Home Depot’s people demonstrated being human by taking the time to apologize to each person who tweeted. In fact, they may have contained the story. How many folks visit the home feed for a company or do most just play in their own feed stream?
    On the other hand, if the agency handling this account didn’t balk at that image, perhaps that slur is fading from culture? What was the age range of the folks on the account? Or did someone voice opposition and was shut down?
    Context: I also notice that the guy’s band mates aren’t beating the heck outta him. If the guy was trying to be offensive, wouldn’t his band mates be upset? If it was a set up, and they were offended, would they have refused to play? Further, these three are in front of then Home Depot sign and playing Homer Buckets. How did this get approved?
    I really would love to know how a group of people thought this image with that caption was acceptable to push via a Corporate account.

    • CommProSuzi ginidietrich I agree with Suzi, how could any one, group or corporation think any part of the image or text was acceptable? What happened after that becomes moot fodder to me, although happy to see the apology.

    • CommProSuzi Just commenting on the first part of Suzi’s note here: yes it’s a form tweet, and yes it looks silly ginidietrich when you show their whole corporate feed looking like that, but that’s just how it looks in the medium, right? If it’s the right thing to say, it’s the right thing to say. It doesn’t need to be said differently for every single person, especially in 140 characters where customization isn’t even going to work very well. For this category of people, I think it was a fair solution, and it doesn’t make me think any less of them.

      • NateStPierre CommProSuzi Fair enough…my point is to try to be as human as possible. You wouldn’t behave this way in person so it’s silly to do so online. If I offended you, Nate, I would say, “Hey Nate! I’m so sorry to have offended you. I won’t do it again.” And to Suzi I’d say, “Suzi, I’m so sorry. Please know it will never happen again.” The message is the same, but I’ve made you feel like I’m talking to you as individuals.

        • ginidietrich NateStPierre CommProSuzi Yes, when you’re talking to 10 individuals in person, but you quickly run out of permutations when you’re trying to talk to 100 people in 140 characters. (Unless there were only a very limited number.) Eh, no big deal either way in my mind. 
          Also we all know that you would never offend me anyway, for you are a diplomat among warriors. (I googled ‘a * among *’, and that’s the best thing I saw.)

  • courtneybosch

    I agree Gini – it’s about being human. For some reason the “social” part of social media often gets lost in translation. If you said something offensive in a “live” social setting, would you walk around saying the exact same apology to each and every person in the room? No. I think Home Depot handled this well up until the robotic response to every Twitter handle. It looked spammy and fake at that point. Glad they addressed it though. Better than remaining silent and taking no action.

    • courtneybosch That’s a great analogy (if it happened “live”) … I guess the main variation with a situation like this is the “life” of the offensive item. i.e., it was tweeted once and then people encountered it at various times (until it was taken down). I think Gini’s observations/concerns about the “rote” apology tweet are warranted. Home Depot did do many things right … I’ve learned about crisis management but observing the situation and reading these types of analyses.

    • courtneybosch I just had a visual of walking around a room, shaking people’s hands, and saying the same, “I’m sorry” over and over again. It made me laugh out loud.

  • susancellura

    I’m curious as to what College GameDay thought. Their logo was in the picture. It doesn’t appear that they needed to do anything, but I’m just curious. 
    This also begs the question regarding crisis communications going forward. One would “think” that others’ social media mistakes would teach a lesson and ensure a company/communicator thinks through what is going to be said publicly, but it’s clear that lessons are not being learned. 
    And, then there is the whole other conversation around the world becoming too “PC”. 
    But, at the end of the day, a brand has to be extremely careful of what they approve and what they say publicly. 
    Sadly, too many companies – big and small – don’t get it.

    • susancellura You mean, like the Redskins having to change their name? Stuff like that makes me roll my eyes. Did you see that invisible cycling helmet the Swedes invented? It was invented by women and they heard comments such as, “You need a rooster to create order” and “How could a woman create something so technical?” Rather than raise holy heck about the clear sexism, they set their minds to prove them all wrong. That’s the kind of stuff I love!

  • stevesonn

    It’s really amazing to me that these posts make it to the public. I can only think that it’s because someone with questionable judgment is operating in a silo. Where is the oversight on the agency side? Is there any communication between the agency and the client?
    It seems as if someone was left to themselves to decide whether this was post-worthy material, and he or she failed. I understand you want to have confidence in your agency and don’t want to handcuff people while at the same time be responsive, but I have to think that if at least a couple people were considering this post it wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Perhaps, Gini, looking at this process between the agency and the client is a good topic for a future post…

    • stevesonn It’s kind of like when you watch an ad and think, “Wow. Someone had to approve that.” I really can’t imagine someone on the Home Depot side didn’t have veto power. Perhaps they did and didn’t find it offensive, which is a great lesson itself. We work with clients on social and we have everything approved. It kind of takes away from the real-time purpose of social, but there are many nuances agencies don’t always know about simply because they’re not there day in and day out.
      I like the future post idea…I’ll think it through!

  • I can appreciate you are holding HomeDepot’s response team to a high standard. But I can’t help thinking “overkill”. Would you be as judgemental if you personally knew members of that team?

    • Randy Milanovic I actually do know members of the team. We worked with them a few years ago through another client. I’m sorry you see it as judgmental. Not my intent in the least. I always try to blog about things that make us all better professionals, which is why I listed so many things they did right. What I would love to see (and what I would counsel our clients to do) is the more human element in situations like this.

      • It never hurts to rock the boat. It’s how we develop our sea legs.

  • I’m struggling with how to word this and not seem totally insensitive – I’ll say that up front so people know that’s not where I’m coming from. This was truly my thought process, though maybe I’m too naive to be allowed to have internet access.
    When I first saw the picture, it literally took me some time to figure out the problem. I didn’t think it was funny, which I assume was the goal. Then I realized why some were offended and my reaction was that this could easily have been an innocent mistake. You know what I think would have been FAR worse? A black guy, a white guy and the guy in the monkey suit. I wish we knew what the approvals process was. I actually saw a tweet from someone that said they weren’t offended, but they wouldn’t have participated in the photo. 
    I think part of the reason this didn’t become a huge issue that stuck around is that the initial handling of the situation was good, but also because it was ambiguous whether people would even be offended by the post far and wide – it seems fairly contained. I am aware of the racist correlation between black men and monkeys but it’s not the way *I* think and it definitely didn’t occur to me right away because it’s been years since I’ve even heard a reference like that in any context. So, I can see how someone might think this was a great idea and mean nothing by it. That makes the firing even worse. I think intent matters.

    • CommProSuzi

      Karen_C_Wilson Look again at the picture. 🙂 It’s two African American/Black men and a White person in a gorilla costume. 
      If the guy wore a Woozle costume or a Princess Leia costume or a Teletubby costume, it gag would stand. As it is, it’s culturally insensitive. 
      We know we’re going to offend someone when we try things, but it’s why we review, why we run it buy others… that pesky approval process.  I can’t believe NO ONE on the team didn’t say, “Wait a second…”

      • CommProSuzi Karen_C_Wilson I seriously can’t believe someone on the client side didn’t see it … and approve it.

      • CommProSuzi Karen_C_Wilson I know the person wearing the costume was a white man. But if one of the other men in the picture was white, it would have been worse – i.e., white man, monkey, black man – which one is different? To me that’s a worse implication.

    • Karen_C_Wilson Like you, I saw the photo and thought, “What?” I had to dig further to see why people thought it was offensive. I really do think Home Depot handled this very, very well. It was just the copy and paste apology that got to me. I get sometimes resources prevent the personal touch, but if there is one time to work overtime, this is it.

      • ginidietrich I’ll never understand why copy/paste is done in these situations. Every time it happens, everyone points out how ineffective and robotic is looks.

        • Karen_C_Wilson Do they? As dbvickery observed above, the only people who actually see the repetition are those inspecting Home Depot’s Twitter stream with a fine tooth comb. What if they had copied & pasted 3 or 10 different apologies; would that suffice? Maybe it looked robotic because Twitter is robotic. I actually think Home Depot did everything right (full disclosure: I haven’t been in a Home Depot store in five years, and am not their target customer).

        • courtneybosch

          Twitter is not meant to be robotic. Case in point – we had a virtual conference a week ago and of our sponsors asked their employees to tweet about the event. Nearly every employee tweeted the exact same statement, verbatim. Clearly a copy/paste job that filled the conversation stream (via our event hashtag) with what appeared to be spam. It’s never good to be robotic. As Gini states above – take the time to add a personal touch. It goes a long way.

        • jono.smith dbvickery In every instance that something like this occurs, timelines are watched to see what the brand will do and every time it shows copy/paste replies, copious screenshots pop up all over the web. Twitter can absolutely be robotic, but it doesn’t have to be. I know many people and quite a few brands who don’t have robotic timelines.
          Besides, just because you don’t see the timeline doesn’t make the appearance any less sincere. This reminds me of email form letters sent from customer service departments. They’re impersonal and almost always miss something key in my original inquiry that needs to be addressed. At the very least, they could have had a general message that is customized to specifically address what was said to them. If you look at the replies to their apology tweets, the copy/paste tactic was noticed repeatedly by people they replied to. A couple people even offered to help teach them how to use social media. 
          I agree that they handled it well…until they started copying and pasting replies.

        • Karen_C_Wilson, I’d argue that the people who are watching at that level of detail
          are in the business of watching. They are not Home Depot’s target
          consumer who a) will probably never hear about this and b) if they do,
          be satisfied with their single apology. One authentic apology can and
          should be the end of this. The idea that social media demands a unique
          apology for everyone who was offended by a mistake is what we should be
          apologizing for. Plus, if they had issued multiple, personalized apologies, people would be parsing the tone and content of each one looking for a flaw. 

          courtneybosch
          I’d argue that social media is inherently robotic. The fact that you
          can schedule a Tweet underscores this fact. No other form of authentic
          communication can be scheduled, edited and deleted in such a robotic
          manner.

        • jono.smith Karen_C_Wilson courtneybosch I appreciate what Karen said, but I think Jono nailed it, too – those who are watching the Home Depot timeline are not generally the target customer. They are looking for an opportunity to stir up a mob mentality and take down yet another big brand that makes a misstep. It’s a harsh fact of life and reflection of our society as a whole.
          Having said that, the best way to combat it is to have original, sincere responses to each person. It will take a spike in manpower, but that beats the downward spike in revenue because you get a boycott mob going.

  • I’ll wager this was approved because people didn’t recognize the potential for it being offensive. Google “Hitler Restaurants” and you’ll find stories about restaurants in Asia that used his name and swastikas.
    If I remember correctly it was ignorance on the part of the owners or at least they claimed ignorance about what he did.
    People have short memories and when you are not part of certain groups you don’t always recognize symbols and names that are derogatory. 
    I am not excusing the behavior but..
    On a somewhat related note I read an article about how JFK’s administration is starting to be viewed in far less glowing terms than it once was. Fifty years after the assassination.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes I’m going to have to look that up…I’m curious as to why that would be.

  • skylamothe

    I agree that the agency should have been let go. Being a relative newbie myself, forgive my perhaps silly question… aren’t campaigns like this planned quite a bit in advance with some user testing?

    • skylamothe They usually are, which is why it surprises me they were fired for it. When we do social with clients, we always get updates approved, sometimes even just RTs and comments to those who tweet their stuff. I can’t imagine the agency did that without their approval, but maybe so…

      • skylamothe

        Thanks for the response, ginidietrich. I suspect they (HomeDepot) wanted to distance themselves as much as possible.

  • I really liked the candid wording of the original tweet, but it kind of loses its effect when identically posted to each individual.
    Having said that, unless you were looking at the Home Depot feed itself, there is a good chance that each individual ONLY saw their message since the tweet starts out with their Twitter ID, and they most likely do not follow the other consumers – right?
    I’d be OK with the standard response provided the rest of their Twitter stream showed a human component (back to thanking folks for checking into stores, URLs to How-Tos, etc.).

    • CommProSuzi

      dbvickery Do you think maybe they were simply gobsmacked and issued the apology as quickly as possible using all hands on the social media deck, hence the wall of response?

      • CommProSuzi dbvickery Oh, I’m sure they absolutely panicked, and were appalled, when they realized the direction some folks would take that picture. Then they tried to get ahead of any viral curve by taking swift action…and making sure everyone knew about it while still apologizing,

    • dbvickery BUT…how cool would it have been if it’d been, “Hey Brian. You’re right. This was terrible. We are so sorry.”? It is personalized, it addresses the complaining tweet, and it stays on message. Suddenly you’ve gone from issuing an apology to create a brand ambassador. Because now you think, “Wow. They took the time to respond to ME. I’m going to stick up for them!”

      • ginidietrich dbvickery Good point, and every one of those tweets is an opportunity to start a NEW dialogue with the consumer…and could run off on a tangent beneficial to both parties.

      • kanya632

        ginidietrich Excellent point! This actually reminds me of a minor setback our company went through a couple of months back when we slightly overcharged 20+ of our clients (accidentally, though!). I was asked to send a mass apology email. My first thought was, “I would HATE that!” So instead, I sent a short, personalized email to every single client. To my surprise, I actually received several “thank you” replies. One client even called and poked fun at the situation and asked about upgrading his account (dead on, dbvickery)! Goes to show what a little personalizing can do.

  • I agree with Gini, I think the firing was harsh and felt panicky and knee-jerk. There should always be a little wiggle room for the (human) person who makes a real, honest to god mistake. To Karen’s point below – I venture that not everyone in the world, and certainly not (perhaps) the younger generation – would even *know* the history behind the negativity and insensitivity this post invoked in so many. Perhaps that’s why I still quote the “Red Cross/Getting Slizzard” tweet as one of my faves. The woman in charge (at the time) handled it brilliantly – even after being woken up in the middle of the night by a frantic “the sky is falling” phone call. She decided, after hearing the facts (accidental tweet, was all in good fun, Friday night, yadda yadda) to roll with it, and issued the no famous “don’t worry, we’re not driving” (paraphrased) apology tweet. That said, this social faux pas was a tad different: Home Depot is a HUGE brand, and one would assume they have a strategy in place, checks and balances, to ensure something like this doesn’t happen. If they don’t, guess what? They do now. Their apology was almost too P/C – and then the cut and paste job, IMHO, took any bit of real sincerity out of it.

    • belllindsay You know, the Red Cross case study is a really good one in being human. That became a non-story because of how well it was handled.

  • Gini,
    In a climate of very little accountability in government when no one looses their job for any infraction, I think its very harsh to “throw out the baby with the bath water” and fire the agency and the person tweeting without finding out if this was an innocent mistake. I can guarantee you perhaps a totally non-racist person thought it was a clever statement and would have said that no matter what two players were with a costumed character. How sad that every statement has to claim someone’s job with an unproven accusation like this without looking into the facts. How would you like to be fired for unsubstantiated charges? It may have been thoughtless at best.  In fact I have a very negative opinion now of Home Depot.

    Susan

    • CommProSuzi

      gagasgarden For me, it begs the question if society has rounded yet another corner.  I’m curious to know the age group of the social media team for that reason. 
      Did they even KNOW it was a slur? 
      Do people who worked so tirelessly to kill this slur win this battle? If so, why are we so bent on not accepting the W? 
      Interestingly, when I talk with friends in former Warsaw Pact countries, they are shocked when they hear that there are words/references that aren’t permitted socially. I always hear, “But, you have Freedom of Speech!” Then we talk about social norms, polite conversation, freedom and responsibility, etc. We Americans are very confusing. 🙂

      • CommProSuzi Your last line made me laugh out loud!

        • CommProSuzi

          I do what I can, Gini. 😉
          My friend in Hungary was telling me they recently received the Freedom of Speech right. (A little mind blowing for me.). He was blown away by Socially Acceptable Speech. According to him — and his English isn’t fantastic — anything goes. — explicatives, slurs, you name it! So he’d likely look at this and wonder what we’re up in arms about. Curious.

    • gagasgarden I know if we were fired for something like that, I’d have a hard time with it. Of course, we don’t know all of the circumstances (did Home Depot approve it?), but I’d stick behind my team and chalk it up to making a mistake.

  • I wonder if this incident says more about the medium of Twitter as a brand marketing tool than it does about Home Depot’s handling of the incident. For one, it’s impossible for a brand to be human, especially in 140 character increments. Although Home Depot did an admirable job of being humane in their apology–even if they recycled it 1000 times–social media cannot humanize a brand. Social media marketers have a tendency to forget that human nature is something that happens naturally and independently, and requires a mind and a body. Sure brands are made up of people, but brands are not people (no offense, Mitt).
    That being said, meaningful brands can have a personhood and a personality that should represent authenticity and trust, which is a VERY convoluted way of saying I agree with you. 🙂
    And if I were Home Depot’s CMO, I would have also fired the agency. I think a $70 billion dollar company deserves better than someone who tweeted that.

    • jono.smith BUT…do you think they really didn’t approve it ahead of time? I’ve not had an experience ever that a client lets us update their social networks on their behalf without prior approval. There have been times we’ve asked for forgiveness instead of permission, but it’s always been in engaging with someone who is asking a question or needs help. We’ve never updated their social networks in this manner without prior approval. If they did do it without approval, I guess the punishment fits the crime.

      • ginidietrich I don’t know the first thing about the ground rules or SOPs for big brand social media management, but are you suggesting that if Home Depot was your client they would have approved each of the 16,000 tweets in their account before they went out? In this case, wouldn’t the agency simply say we are going to be live tweeting College Game Day, and Home Depot would in turn expect them to follow their brand messaging guidelines?

        • jono.smith Not that they would approve the 16,000, but that they would approve big status updates like the College GameDay photos/images/contest rules.

    • AdrienneSender

      jono.smith I completely disagree with you. Social Media is one of the BEST ways to humanize a brand! Home Depot had their chance to be human when taking responsibility, which could still be done in a professional way, but they messed up more by blaming the agency and mass posting the canned responses. 
      I do not disagree with the firing of the agency. BUT, a smart big brand would make sure they see and approve a content calendar of all tweets (especially ones relating to a sponsorship). That being said, the blame here lies just as much, if not more, with Home Depot itself. Such a ridiculous tweet. Since it was relating to a sponsorship, I’m guessing AT LEAST 3 people saw the message between corporate and the agency. No one raised a red flag?

      • AdrienneSender Is there any chance it was a spontaneous tweet? Again, I have no experience with the editorial arrangements between big brands and big agencies, but do they ever allow for a spontaneous tweet that doesn’t have to get approved by 3 people at corporate? Maybe the offender snapped the picture, wrote the tweet, sent it, and didn’t realize what s/he had done until they took a second look an hour later. If someone tells me that it’s impossible for agencies to do spontaneous tweeting for a big brand, I may be ill.
        It’s funny, just in the course of writing this response Twitter’s official advertising account https://twitter.com/TwitterAds/status/400735757524303872 the following: “The opportunity to humanize a brand on Twitter is a huge value proposition for a lot of our clients” @melissabarnes #FurtherFaster
        Regardless, I’m going to stick with my guns and suggest marketers stop suggesting that social media is some form of “humanistic branding” tool. For starters, when you attempt to use social media to give a brand human character, you activity is based on an artificial premise since brands aren’t human. Consumers automatically tend to humanize brands and ascribe personality traits to them. But they do so knowing that corporate brands are engines of commerce they enlist to solve a specific problem. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use social media to give them a personality by telling authentic stories about your brand, or make authentic apologies when you screw up. But consumers want you to stop pretending to humanize the brand and start helping them simplify their noisy lives.
        Look at all the brands that try to humanize themselves on social media a few days ago in honor of Veteran’s Day, most of them with the best of intentions. They were just trying to be human, but most of the research I’ve seen says consumers will never let that happen.
        There are a couple of research studies worth reading on this topic:The Marketing Leadership Council at the Corporate Executive Board did a study (which was turned into an http://img.en25.com/Web/CEB/MLC%20Decision%20Simplicity%20Harvard%20Business%20Review%20Article.pdf last year). CEB found that businesses broadly misjudge what consumers want from them online. In particular, marketers often believe that consumers interact with them on social media to join a  community and feel connected to the brand. But consumers have little interest in having a relationship beyond the merely transactional. Their top reasons for connecting online: to get information and discounts, and to buy things.While it argues a different point, there’s also been http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130402101249.htm done finding that there is a greater backlash by the public when a product branded with human characteristics fails.
        PS: I agree with CommProSuzi. This has been an absolutely engaging debate and discussion. There’s a Certificate in Marketing waiting for any junior marketer who reads these comments from start to finish. Thank you @ginidietrich for being the best Julie McCoy in cyberspace!

  • Gini,
    Thx for your reply and I knew you would stick behind your Team. 🙂 They did respond and answer even if robotic. Companies seem reactionary as if motivated by fear, paralyzed on some issues and others they turn a deaf ear. Interesting, huh? You sure do keep up with an amazing work load.
    Susan

  • courtneybosch

    See Gini – you’ve managed to reply to everyone’s comments here in your own personal way. That’s how it’s done!! 🙂

  • SCM7

    I am currently taking a Public Relations Fundamentals course and these are the types of examples that our class reviews on a weekly basis. We review public relation responses every week from companies and agencies and analyze in a group discussion to determine, in our opinion, if the situation was handled correctly.
    In the case of Home Depot, my questions would be, was the actual message tweeted descriptive enough with its apology? Is it recommended that in situations of this nature to be so short with an apology? What is considered too short or too long for an apology towards something that has come across as being so racist?
    In my own opinion, too much blame is being put on the agency with zero accountability from Home Depot. I don’t believe that the ad was not approved by someone at Home Depot corporate and to put all of the blame onto the agency, wouldn’t this show negligence by Home Depot regarding how they are screening a company that is representing their brand to the public?

    • CommProSuzi

      Well, welcome to the profession! You may be right. Forgive me if you’re a seasoned professional,but I’m going to use the cue that you’re taking a class on PR Fundamentals, and guess you’re college age person bravely joining this discussion. (Kudos to you!)
      A lot of the discussion in the comments below centers on the approval process. Since this was such a big event, the messages were likely approved — at least the major ones. Additionally, the agency may have some free rein to capture the moment or respond in real time. The agency should know what the client will tolerate. (It’s why those initial client meetings are so critical!)
      If I have one piece of advice to give you about this it’s “take a beat.”
      Check to make sure you’re using the right account! (You don’t want to post something meant for your private account on your client’s account.)
      If you have any doubt, ask others to weigh in.
      Recognize that humor is subjective…and difficult. (Present company excluded, of course. We’re all hilarious!)
      Good luck in your studies.

  • Agree the process failed, though I am not certain that’s the main story. At least, not one people will really care about.. or did HD’s stores empty, was its FB page unliked en masse, did its stock plummet? Don’t misunderstand me, I know full well the weight of public opinion, and PR’s role in brand reputation, how much that truly correlates to brand value and worth. Random thoughts, FWIW:
    1. This was a mistake. And poor judgement. And bad taste. Wrong to tweet, right to pull. And apologize for it – though the finger-pointing at outside agency was a weaksauce excuse that I cannot imagine anyone buying anymore. 
    2. The firing – back to the process story. Who hired, what was the arrangement, how was the agency and its staffed vetted? Was there an approval process in place – or was this a ‘trust us.. now set and forget’ kind of arrangement? What was HD’s plan?** On and on.
    3. Making mistakes – in marketing, taste, style, humor, judgement, strategy, cooking, TV choices – is about as HUMAN as it gets.
    The ‘joke’ picture was terrible. The robo-apology is absotively wrong. Period. But so is this sterile, sanitized, knee jerk, no forgiveness attitude we, as the armchair quarterback observers of social media marketing, and the-all-to-happy-to-hype-it-up-for-clicks-and-ratings mass media. Aside from water and oxygen and blue skies and rainbows, is there anything that doesn’t have the potential to offend, to be misinterpreted, to be… stopping before I really get ranting about the hypocrisy of preaching “authenticity” and “transparency” and companies, brands acting like ‘real’ humans. Provided they make zero mistakes and are 100% appealing to all 7 billion on the planet. And see, I ranted anyway. 🙂
    ** BTW I’m in Atlanta and have seen HD advertising a number of new social media jobs. And the bugaboo for me is: 1) I’ve got a great PR mind and a solid understanding of social, but w/ little major social branding experience and no ‘insider’ at HDHQ, my application would be for naught. 2) Why are they looking for ‘social’ experts? Why not home improvement, building experts who also happen to be social, understand PR, etc.? There aren’t people on staff – in R&D, accounting, logistics, etc. – who, in partnership w/ a better agency, make great members of the Social, Marketing, Communications Round as true HD brand advocates?

  • CommProSuzi

    Gang — this is a great discussion! Lots of great ideas being traded here. Gino’s original critique of the response was it was robotic and impersonal.
    I wonder now…24 hours and a night’s sleep on the topic…did HD Legal weigh in and influence the apology and the impersonal nature of it?

  • rdymond

    Very interesting post! I’m a senior college student studying public relations, and I am always fascinated by crisis communications and how various organizations handle their issues. I remember seeing this tweet and being perplexed as to how someone actually thought it’d be a good idea to post One thing I’ve learned over and over again in my classes is this: if there’s any question or uncertainty about whether a post will offend, DON’T post it. Why take the risk in offending your audience? I think that Home Depot handled the situation well. I do agree that firing the agency may have been overkill. And I also completely agree about how they could have better handled the generic Twitter responses. Copy and pasting shows little to no effort. As tedious and time-consuming as it may be, respond individually to as many tweets as possible. It makes the brand look much better and people would be more likely to forgive and forget (quickly).

  • rdymond I agree with you…and it’s 140 characters. It’s not hard to customize those. It may take an extra 10 minutes, but it’s very well worth the effort.

  • CommProSuzi You wrote this comment from your iPhone, didn’t you?? It always changes my name to Gino.

  • courtneybosch And sometimes it takes me nine days to get back to it!

  • SCM7 If they are teaching these things in the PR Fundamentals classes, I don’t understand how these mistakes continue to be made. Very, very good questions to be asking. Make sure you continue to do that when you have bosses who don’t want to hear it.

  • 3HatsComm I agree with you that mistakes make companies human…and we all make mistakes. Where I don’t agree is the “sterile, sanitized, knee-jerk, no forgiving attitude” I’ve displayed by writing this. I have one vision for this blog and it is to educate PR pros and change the perception people have of our industry. To do that, I use case studies and point out what was done well (notice I said many things were done well in this blog post) and what could have been better. For the record, Home Depot got this very same advice from some of their largest vendors.

  • ginidietrich I wasn’t saying you have this attitude, nor was I attacking this well-intentioned blog. Of course this was a mistake and of course brands, large and small, can learn from it.
    I was speaking in general about the hype machine, seemingly every time this kind of thing happens. I live and work w/ many who aren’t in the biz or ‘social.’ But they are online, they read and watch the news. You can talk about X mistake or Y disaster, they’ve never heard of it. Or if they have, they shrug it off and keep buying/shopping/watching what they want – sometimes as wary of the media pile-on as I. FWIW.

  • CommProSuzi

    More likely culprit…iPhone’s cousin, iPad. Or I simply fat fingered typing. Words like “shutters” and “Ducks” can be my biggest challenges.
    Sorry, Gini…with an “i” at the end and a short “i” vowel sound on the first “i.”

  • Pingback: The Way We C It – Did You Really Just Tweet That? 5 Social Media Gaffes and Reactions()

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