Posted July 26, 2011 6:43 am by with 5 comments

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In the world of online reputation management there are a few times when the “Did they really do that?” quotient goes off the chart. Naturally, one of the most obvious times where this can happen involves a tragedy. This weekend’s passing of singer Amy Winehouse shows just how willing people and companies are to put taste to the side for the sake of sales and traffic.

The two culprits who were just fine initially with using the singer’s death to try to get something for themselves were Microsoft and the Huffington Post. First, the Microsoft version of how not to use the Internet in times of tragedy.

On Monday, after Winehouse’s death over the weekend, the Microsoft UK PR account posted the following tweet.

It’s not like this account has a huge following (just under 1,800) but the backlash to Microsoft has been as if there were hundreds times more followers. Why is that? Part of that response is in part due to the quick apology tweet which comes off as far less than a genuine mea culpa.

Which is then followed by the tweet that would have been the appropriate thing to say in the first place if there was a need for a corporate account to even address such an issue.

In the end, the sheer cluelessness of someone in the Microsoft organization has taken a relatively obscure outlet for the huge company and turned it into a completely unnecessary reputation firestorm.

What are the lessons to be learned here? The biggest is to be careful as to how much trust you put into your social media managers. If there was a thinking person who was filtering this account for something as insensitive and ignorant as was put out for the world to see, this would’ve never happened.

This instance also shows that in the world of the Internet there are enough people paying attention at all times that businesses need to pay even more attention at all times. Preventable corporate reputation gaffes are going to be vilified much more than those that are created by an outsider because, let’s face it, the Internet culture loves to find people who make mistakes (especially big companies) then rub their faces in it.

Now, for another example of what not to do. The Huffington Post, the world’s favorite content farm that isn’t a content farm, proved once again that sensationalism is what drives traffic and they are just fine with it.

Less than 24 hours after the singer’s death a post appeared at HuffPo from a blogger, Tricia Fox, who is one of those supposed experts in something or other. She is Scottish and that’s all I will tell you about her because the rest feeds this entire attempt to piggyback on tragedy as a way to get something for oneself.

The long and short of it is the post’s title “Amy Winehouse’s Untimely Death Is A Wake Up Call For Small Business Owners”. I won’t glorify the post with a link but you can go and check it out if you like (and while you’re at it check out a HuffPo advertiser so the blog can get what it needs which is more money as opposed to informed readers).

In obvious cases of completely tasteless link baiting it’s easy to pick this apart so let’s save the hassle. What is interesting in this particular case is the response from readers in the comments who go after this blogger. OK, I take that back because even more interesting is the blogger’s defense of her blatant exploitation of a tragic situation. Her first of many comments highlights her near heartless approach because in the end it’s still all about her.

I’d like to take this opportunity to openly thank you all for your comments on this blog. It was my first post on HP and a baptism of fire it would seem.

For those of you who have been offended by my use of Amy Winehouse as an example, please accept my sincere apologies. Offence was never my intent.

For those of you who think I know nothing about addiction: you’re right. And my article was never about addiction. It is about business owners, their behaviour and how that behaviour can have (tragic) consequences. I make no apology for my style of blogging – you are free to decide to follow/not follow my posts as you wish.

There are a few things I have learned from this experience:

Response to this blog in the UK has been positive. Response from the USA has been negative. I’m not sure why different nationalities have recieved (sic) the blog differently.

People are very quick to attack online. In response to this blog I have been called a narcissist, a bigot, reprehensible, insensitive and have earned the online credit for writing the “worst article ever written”. This is all from people who have never met me and probably never will. I am comfortable that I am none of those labels.

Am I disappointed with my first Huffington Post blog? No. In fact, I really quite staggered at the response I have had (good or bad). It’s good to talk. And I’m open to discussion.

The lessons here? First impressions go a long way. Would you want to hire someone like this to have any connection with your business? Would you want someone with the mindset that “any traffic is good traffic” doing what they can to represent you? Would you want to give money to someone who obviously has little care for anything other than their own personal gain? Maybe you would, which is fine, but I suspect most wouldn’t.

So what are the reputation takeaways here?

  1. If you are trying to take advantage of a tragic event for business gain: don’t. The short-term bump will likely never outweigh the long term reputation damage you inflict on yourself and your brand
  2. Exercise some self-control – We live in this hyper-speed “must take advantage of a situation yesterday” world that most of us are ill-equipped to manage well. It’s unnatural in many ways and it is the perfect environment for serious mistakes to be made.
  3. Admit your mistakes and move on – Even if you feel that you are fully justified in your position, the likelihood of you improving a situation by arguing your case and trying to show you are not what you appear to be is somewhere between slim and none. Apologize and move on.

It feels like we are constantly treading over the same ground in the online reputation space but we do it for a reason. That reason is that people are not paying attention. In their haste to make something from nothing, or in this case, something from something tragic, people forget the basics. Why do you think even professional athletes have to do basic drills for their entire careers? It’s because if you don’t exercise the muscles they will forget what to do.

Next time you feel the urge to jump on a situation for personal gain just step back and at least give yourself an hour or two to really think it through. Short-term gain rarely outweighs the potential long-term damage that any situation can provide. Ask Microsoft and blogger Fox.

Oh and for those who will inevitably feel that we are doing the same thing by going over this situation for our readers, we get that. That’s part of the deal when talking about online reputation management and monitoring. You rarely are talking about people doing the right thing. It comes with the territory.

  • “there are enough people paying attention at all times that businesses need to pay even more attention at all times.”

    Exactly! Every move you make online is being watched by someone, somewhere. A careless Tweet, even if it is deleted moments later, can still go rouge and bring about a lot of problems for your brand. Think before you speak!

    • I definitely agree with both the article and Nick’s comment. It reminds me of something I heard as a kid: It isn’t what you do when you know someone is watching, but rather what you do when you don’t think anyone is watching.

      Thanks for the great article.

  • Opps! Almost made the ultimate hypocritical step into bad taste by using #AmyWinehouse hash tag when I put this article into our company’s tweet deck.

  • This seems to be a very common practice lately. I remember a few months back when a clothing designer used the riots in Egypt to promote their new line on Twitter. These types of comments do get attention, but you have to ask yourself if it is the type of attention you are wanting. Why tarnish my company’s name (Infogenix) and reputation for something like this. Social media managers need to be more aware of the effects of what they are publishing. Or maybe the notoriety is what they’re going for.

  • good articles!