Perhaps you heard, but McDonald's does not charge African-American customers more for their hamburgers. The fast food giant got stuck in the crosshairs of the latest internet firestorm and was forced to repeatedly remind people of this fact through its social media outlets and official press releases that silly sign was a fake. A fake, got it?
I wonder how many "you cannot be seriously asking this" tweets the flacks and social media types at McDonald's had to send out before they reached the most extreme heights of annoyance. Although McDonald's garnered a lot of media praise from the geeks who follow that stuff, siting this as a classic case of how social tools are effective at responding to crisis swiftly and directly. Although, I would offer this counterpoint. I believe that the McDonald's situation is a textbook example for exactly the opposite argument - social media contributes to creating such silliness as much as it's a useful communications tool.
If McDonald's spent even a single minute of their time dealing with upset internet crowds, then it was at least a minute too long. However, not only did McDonald's turn to social media in the wake of it's internet buzz, they turn to it everyday. Companies listen. They monitor sites daily to see what people are saying about them. I believe this is just as wasteful.
I wonder how often they learn something new monitoring Twitter and Facebook. Does monitoring the activity on the internet (and the opinions surrounding their brand) really tell them something they couldn't deduce themselves? Probably not. I'd argue that it's highly likely that the thoughts of consumers will reflect that of its employees. Walk into any workplace meeting. If the employees are visually excited to be at work then it's likely customers will feel the same about spending money there.
Secondly, how does listening to disenchanted customers and responding in an underwhelming manner actually solve the issue at hand? Sure, social media can help in the discovery phase; however, the real work should be directed at resolving the issue that caused the complaint and not just acknowledging it.
Finally, I seriously wonder if a brand can be severely damaged by someone or something which has zero credibility itself. Sure, despite its silliness, there were pockets of people took the altered photo for it's face value. Yet, if the technology is as powerful as it's claimed to be, viral topics become become discussed away from the web. Therefore, shouldn't word spread about how the picture was doctored just as fast?
The notion that brands should constantly listen to and respond to the snap judgments of anonymous crowds is partially responsible for creating these ridiculous weekly internet dust ups. Meanwhile, marketers place little emphasis on preventing even the smallest varieties from occurring in the first place.
This blog post first appeared in a slightly different form on Talent Zoo Media's Beneath the Brand blog.