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14.11.2013

#AskBigBiz: This is a tale of the London Whale, and a great big epic Twitter FAIL

(Apologies to the children’s laureate.)

The internet has been alive with corporate social-media disasters the last couple of days. The first was yesterday’s misbegotten Twitter Q&A, planned for today, with JP Morgan investment banker Jimmy Lee. The initiating hashtag #AskJPM was quickly and decisively overtaken by the internet’s indefatigable snark machine, and the company speedily backed out, tweeting unceremoniously: “Tomorrow’s Q&A is cancelled. Bad Idea. Back to the drawing board.”

I’ll say it was! JP Morgan is near the top of many Wall Street critics’ hit lists. Between the $13bn settlement JP Morgan has been forced to pay for misselling mortgage-backed securities, to its $6bn ‘London Whale’ losses, to today’s accusations of buying influence via the daughter of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, it’s an easy target.

So what did the world want to #AskJPM? Here’s a selection:

Or even:

and:

If it’s any consolation to JP Morgan, they have plenty of company. British Gas recently tried the same Twitter Q&A, this time with its head of customer service – on the very day the company announced an increase in customers’ rates of nearly 10%. You can imagine the sort of stuff that came back from its invitation to #AskBG, but to give you a sense for it: “How hard is it to sleep at night with Cameron’s foot on your head, and the stench of dead pensioners in your nostrils?”; “Do the @BritishGas board prefer to bathe in £20 or £50 notes?”, and “Hi Bert, which items of furniture do you, in your humble opinion, think people should burn first this winter?”

We’ve also had a new advertisement from Toys R Us making the rounds. It shows what purports to be a forest ranger from the ‘Meet the Trees Foundation’ leading a bus full of children on an excursion. The ‘ranger’ bores the kids rigid with pictures of leaves while the bus trundles toward its destination – ultimately revealed to be a trip to the toy store!!!

When the ranger is revealed to be an actor, the kids are welcomed inside the store, given run of the place to play with whatever they want, before taking home a toy of their choosing.

Maybe it’s a nice gesture from a big company that they would make a busload of children’s dreams come true – that’s surely what Toys R Us had in mind. But the ad was so simplistic and craven in its message that middle class parents and teachers took huge offense at what they saw boiling down to: Nature is boring. Learning is boring. Toys are where it’s at.

TV satirist Stephen Colbert got into the act, too, declaring: “Toys ‘R’ Us has really captured the magic of having a stranger take your kids on a bus, lie about where they’re going, then take off their clothes and promise them toys. This commercial shows kids the ‘great outdoors’ is nothing compared to the majesty of a strip mall. And they still get some nature because, remember, that confetti used to be a tree!” Cue angry letters and promises of boycotts. This one took a bit longer to get going, with the ads first aired in the US on 20 October, but at time of writing Toys R Us’ Facebook timeline is filled with comments such as: “’Meet the Trees’ field trip shows just how out of touch with reality Toys R Us is. You should be ashamed of airing this advertisement. Retract and apologize for it immediately.”

With parents heading toward Christmas-shopping time, this anger can be harmful. Already those turned off by the ad campaign are looking to buy elsewhere, or – horrors! – buy less. Perhaps in the future, such viral fails will become a massive advertising opportunity to promote alternative brands that stand for opposing values. As far as Toys R Us is concerned, the National Trust’s championing of Natural Childhood work in the UK does just that.

So what’s going on here? Why do these sort of corporate Twitter initiatives go viral in all the wrong ways? Why does it always look like a bad idea in the rear view mirror, but not through the front windscreen? Can a company ever engage with social media authentically – and not get plastered for it? A Twitter user asked today:

I think the answer to Lynne’s specific question is that this campaign was indeed always bound to fail for JP Morgan (and similarly for British Gas). Its communications team is smart enough to know it’s a controversial company, and the straight-faced invitation to “ask me anything you want” is bound to result in plenty of people asking questions about the highest-profile issues the company is currently facing – especially the ugly ones. And Jimmy Lee would never have been equipped to respond appropriately – it’s not his role.

Companies mistakenly believe they know in advance which eyes will be attracted by their social media campaigns – and when different eyes show up, that’s when the hashtag takeover happens. JP Morgan clearly believed the participants in their Twitter audience would be interested in views from the investment banker behind their recent Twitter flotation – because Twitter users are interested in Twitter? – and failed to take into account the nature of broader public opinion.

Of much greater concern is the more fundamental error JP Morgan made with this campaign. Analyst Debra Williamson was quoted in today’s Financial Times as saying: “I think companies sometimes forget that social media belongs to the people.” Twitter is famously quick to remind its clumsier corporate members of this fact.

But JPM and British Gas are hardly the first companies to invite people to “ask me anything you want.” Shell established its now defunct Tell Shell forum on its corporate website in 1998 – an open space for anyone to ask any question, with content organized by headers such as corporate values, social and environmental issues, customer complaints and others. Participants’ remarks were unedited, and Shell’s responses were transparent. And the comments and questions were no less hostile to the company than the recent JPM tweets, and it was freely available and accessible. Yet none of that went viral. Why?

In great part, it’s to do with the rise of social media itself as the mechanism for sharing – none of which existed in 1998. But it’s also to do with the fact that Tell Shell is Shell’s own platform, not an external one such as Facebook or Twitter the company attempted to colonize.

So companies, by all means, use Twitter. It’s an enormously useful resource, and millions of people have fun and do serious work in it. But use Twitter to share information – specific information about specific company activities or issues. Coca-Cola Enterprise used the #CCECollaboration hashtag to invite ideas, experiences and frustrations related to changing recycling behavior, and share the results. An #AskUs open invitation will be seen as just that – by fans and trolls alike.

And as for Toys R Us, an expensive, high-profile, Christmas-buildup advertisement is hard to erase once it’s been released – though the company has pulled the ads from on-air media, confining it to online only. Of course, the online space is exactly where their problem is, and thus far, the company has been silent in responding to its many critics’ posts, letters and blogs taking issue with what they see as an insult to their sensibilities. Perhaps they’re working on a new surprise, a response that would defy all expectations? They could do worse than a Christmas ad showing kids leaving their freshly-unwrapped presents inside while they go out and play in the snow…nature is the ultimate playground, after all.  

Want to understand more about social media and corporate responsibility? Check out our report for Ethical Corporation.