How to avoid PR disasters when exploring new platforms and trends

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There’s an iconic quote from Jurassic Park that can be applied time and time again in the world of marketing and advertising:

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Many brands and businesses are battling to stay ahead of the curve and do something a little more adventurous than their competitors. With this in mind, it’s easy to become obsessed with pie-in-the-sky ideas that could help your brand stand out - but have you ever actually thought if you even should?

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This life lesson from Jeff Goldblum is particularly relevant in the online world. The social media sphere is densely overpopulated with companies from all walks of life and, for the most part, the ones that gain the most attention are those that try something different. Organisations that traditionally wouldn’t draw much attention, such as The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, can now become overnight sensations. The same goes for companies such as MoonPie and Lidl, who on paper, shouldn’t be so funny, but on social, are really excellent at communicating in a fun, exciting way.

With so many opportunities to make their brands stand out, CMO’s are scratching their chins thinking about how they can go one better, but there are plenty of potential pitfalls along the way.

Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself

When you think about the social media platforms businesses can use, you likely come up with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Almost every company in the world is moderately comfortable with these platforms, as they’re used by thousands of other businesses. There are, however, many social media sites that are for the most part untapped, because their unpredictability or newness makes marketers nervous, including Reddit, TikTok and Tumblr.

All of these platforms boast millions of users worldwide, and the advertising space isn’t as competitive as mainstream platforms. It seems a no-brainer to consider them in your next marketing strategy, but before you dive into the unknown, there are some things to consider to avoid a PR disaster.

A nightmare scenario took place when Austrian games publisher THQ Nordic decided (unbeknownst to their PR company) to host an AMA on 8chan. AMA’s (Ask Me Anything) is really popular Q&A sessions that take place on Reddit, where there is an entire forum with 334k subscribers dedicated to them. There are a lot of really random AMA’s with Reddit users around the world, but equally, many businesses and influential people in industry host them as an opportunity to converse with their audience.

Rather than follow suit with other gaming companies that have hosted Reddit AMA’s, THQ Nordic decided to host an AMA on 8chan, another forum website that has been described as a “free-speech-friendly” alternative. No businesses put themselves out there on 8chan, so logically, it’s a great place to push the THQ Nordic agenda and converse with a new audience, right?

There are (countless) reasons why businesses don’t market themselves on 8chan. Had THQ Nordic simply browsed the 8chan Wikipedia, it would’ve seen the list of controversies right there. 8chan has become a filled with child pornography, so much so it was temporarily blacklisted from Google Search. The alt-right thrive on 8chan, to the extent that it’s alleged that the terrorist behind the Christchurch mass shooting posted his detailed manifesto on the site, streaming the event as it unfolded on the platform.

Needless to say, THQ Nordic’s AMA thread was quickly littered with highly offensive and illegal material. As there’s little to no input from moderators on 8chan, these responses remained until THQ Nordic finally deleted the AMA entirely. When announcing the AMA, THQ Nordic flippantly said that “the opportunity was [there] and we took it” and an apology was later issued by Philipp Brock, the PR & Marketing Director at THQ Nordic. If your PR & Marketing Director has to publicly clarify that he doesn’t condone child pornography, white supremacy and racism, it was probably a very, very bad decision.

The 8chan fiasco could’ve been avoided had THQ Nordic consulted thoroughly with their dedicated PR agency, and an ounce of research into the website would have revealed its controversies. Instead, a choice was made to do something “edgy” and “never done before”. Ultimately, if you aren’t sure about something, research it, speak to the audience, consult others that are more in the know. Don’t risk your company’s reputation for 15 minutes of fame - not all publicity is good publicity.

Know What You’re Getting Into

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TikTok (formerly known as musical.ly) has quickly become one of the world’s most popular apps, despite many marketers never hearing of it. The video app is currently available across 150 markets in 75 languages and boasts more than 500 million monthly active users around the world. TikTok has the potential to offer brands the opportunity to connect with the millennial and Generation Z audience, and companies such as McDonald's and Guess have encouraged users to create TikTok videos featuring official branded hashtags.

It’s pretty simple for businesses to get involved: put out a message that you want people to film something and log it under a specific hashtag, just like when Jimmy Fallon encouraged people to act like tumbleweed and put the video on TikTok under the #tumbleweedchallenge hashtag. The challenge itself generated over 8,000 submissions with 10.4 million views. Brands don’t really need to do anything, as all the content is user-generated.

Of course, with any relatively new-platform, there are teething problems. TikTok is China’s first major social network to hit abroad, becoming particularly popular in the United States, where it was downloaded 1.5 times more than its rival, Instagram. With this success comes scrutiny, as app regulation is highly fragmented, even more so around East Asia where Western governing bodies don’t exist or operate.

Soon after brands jumped on the TikTok bandwagon, the platform was hit with a $5.7m fine by the US Federal Trade Commission for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, as TikTok was collecting personal information (including email addresses) from children under 13 without the need for parental consent. This fine came at a sensitive time, as YouTube was also in the firing line for concerns that it has been facilitating paedophile networks.

In 2018, Chinese authorities came forward to admit that they’re able to retrieve deleted WeChat messages (a Chinese messaging app). In the Western world, this is a considerable cause for concern and breach of privacy. Naturally, there’s a disconnect in compliance between apps that migrate from Asia to become popular in Europe or the USA. Laws and regulations differ, which makes it risky for businesses to hedge their bets and create a marketing investment on them.

Understand The Risks

Ever keen to get more cash flowing up the stream like Colonel Kurtz into the murky abyss, social platforms have nominally rolled out new features to encourage brands to use their sites as the medium for new campaigns. Combined with the fact that social’s MO is promoting customer interaction, this seems like a win-win for everyone as this metric gets boosted and we all go home happy.

Except for one thing.

As much as social is all about talking to consumers, this tends to only hold water until the conversation turns sour, at which point you’ll see the brands dash outta there like Shaggy and Scooby Doo affronted with a hotel owner in a mask. Which brings us to a hilarious/horrifying episode from Walkers.

To encourage entrants to their #WalkersWave competition offering tickets to the 2017 Champions League Final, Walkers allowed participants to upload a picture to be used in a tweet featuring Gary Lineker. The penny dropped a few hours later when users began uploading pictures such as this:

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Now, while you can accept that everything looks clearer in hindsight, surely someone at Walkers must have seen this coming. All the social media managers and execs, the accounts team, the design team? Nope, apparently this was just one of those unforeseeables, completely unlike any situation that has ever happened before.

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The worst part about all of these? They all happened at least a year before the Walkers campaign started, so it’s not like they were caught on the hop. In all honesty, we’ve only scratched the surface of this type of blunder, but the fact that they have been churned out by brands across the world shows that anyone claiming that brands are now wise to the phenomena is deluded. The Walkers example is from 2017, and here another example from just last year shows Snapchat making reference to Rihanna’s assault by Chris Brown.

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Clearly marketers haven’t learned the collective lesson that social campaigns must be considered from the worst possible outcome as well as the best, and before anyone cites the old “any publicity” nonsense, bear in mind that Snapchat’s market value took an $800 million bath after they got called out by Rihanna. The moral of this story is that if you’re chasing some quick wins through interaction, be careful what you wish for, as you just might get it.

Summary

The world of marketing is fast-paced, but sometimes, it pays to have patience. Rather than becoming over-excited and delving straight into the unknown, ensure you thoroughly understand the platform, it’s regulations, the audience and it’s content. Taking time to research and test the waters can save a PR nightmare and keep your brand perception safe. Rather than be blind sighted by whether or not you could, and how you’d do it - stop and think if you should.

Fast Web Media have a dedicated team of social media specialists, so if you have any questions or qualms about a particular platform, get in touch here to see how we can help.

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