Anything You Say Can be Used Against You in the Court of PR

So what is it with PR professionals and Twitter? Sometimes we feel like a nut, and sometimes we don’t?

James Andrews, a vice president for Ketchum PR, one of the top PR agencies in the country, posted a quick tweet to his peeps about his first impression of Memphis, where he was visiting a little company they were doing some PR for, you might have heard of it, it’s called FedEx. It turns out, Andrews was less than impressed.

whoops2

An employee for FedEx (the client in question) read the tweet, and this led to a memo to Mr. Andrews, his bosses at Ketchum, and some higher-ups at FedEx, essentially stating what he thought of Mr. Andrews’ opinion of his fair town. Peter Shankman posted the memo at his blog, which is well worth checking out. (if you don’t have his blog on speed dial already) Then the story was picked up by Gawker, who immediately took the whoopin’ stick to PR with Gawker-esque style. The title says it all: “Flackery: PR Person Excoriated for Telling Truth.”

My first thought after reading this at Peter’s blog was “Wow, how far down his virtual mouth did he end up shoving that boot?” It was very reminiscent of Steve Rubel’s Foot in Mouth disease back in 2007 when he upset the editorial staff at PC Magazine with a bit of his own brilliant insight.

Rubel Whoops

Ouch.

I started wondering at these two statements and the reaction they created, pro and con. Each one was less than 140 characters, but had the ability to impact a company’s relationship (or in Rubel’s case many companies with one media outlet) with the PR firm they have entrusted with creating their image, online and offline. As usual with cases like this, there is more than meets the eye. That’s one of the strengths of the conversations on Twitter (you can quickly get the gist of what the writer is saying in 140 characters) but also one of its biggest weaknesses (if you’re not following the conversation for several tweets, you are going to end up taking things out of context). That’s what happened here. With Rubel, the tweet was not intended as a slam on PC Magazine, but more a matter of what he reads online vs. reading in print. But you won’t know that if you weren’t following the conversation.

Mr. Andrews (I feel like I should have on some black shades and a black suit when I say that, and be a computer created program in a virtual life but that’s for another time) was probably just sharing his thoughts with a group of people he considers his “friends,” but he forgot one of the most important rules on Twitter, all of your statements are archived and Google searchable. What’s worse is he was going to FedEx to speak about Social Media, which means he was directing the same people whose town he was smacking to check out what he said about their town. But again, he probably thought he was just talking with his “friends” and as the old rugby saying goes, “no blood, no foul.” Twitter can get you like that. You’re involved in the conversation, and the next thing you know, “oh my gosh, I didn’t really mean to blurt that out, did I?” It’s too easy to slip into that mode of “chilling with my peeps.”

Since 2007, Rubel’s tweet has proven useful in my handful of presentations about what to be aware of when using social media for PR. In that one statement, and the response it received from PC Magazine’s editor, damage was done not only to Rubel and Edelman, but to all of the clients that Edelman might want to pitch to PC Magazine. In Andrews’ case, the damage was done directly to the client-agency relationship between Ketchum and FedEx. I’m sure it was, as many things on Twitter tend to be, a momentary thought and nothing more. But to the people at FedEx and Memphis, it meant a lot more. Memphis, like most towns (even Albuquerque) have their social media savvy defenders who will bite back if they feel their home has been maligned. (One of the things I’ve seen in Social Media is a growth, or reemergence, of community pride, whether that pride is in a town, organization, or hobbyists).

There have been detractors of the person who emailed Andrews, his bosses and the higher-ups at FedEx, saying he should not be so thin-skinned, he should act like an adult, blah blah blah. While this might be true, Andrews, a PR professional, should have known that whatever he says online will probably be connected back to his firm and onto his clients.

This also led me to another question, one that I will address shortly. When you work in PR, does it automatically mean that you have to surrender your opinions at the door? Are you, and anything you ever blog, tweet or video record, linked to your employer?

Update: Chris Brogan has an interesting discussion going on at his place.

(H/T: Peter Shankman)