Lessons from Kenneth Cole: Watch What You Tweet

Americans no longer have to ask the question, “Why does the rest of the world hate us?” Kenneth Cole solved that riddle for all of us today by posting one extremely insensitive tweet.

Yes, he’s referring to the same tumultuous situation in Cairo you’re thinking of, a violent upheaval that has resulted in death, injury and the disruption of thousands of lives.  By showing that shoes and clothing are more important than people’s lives, their passion for democracy and their willingness to put principle above safety, Kenneth Cole essentially gave the rest of the world a pretty good reason to hate Americans.

He also developed a PR nightmare for himself.

Initially, I thought the tweet was drummed up by whatever marketing intern they had running the Twitter show over there today. Then my colleague informed me that the “KC” added to the tweet meant it was actually from Kenneth Cole himself.

Great to see that the big boss is on-board with social media! (I’m all about an executive who tweets).  However, perhaps the PR department should have been a little stricter in monitoring Mr. Cole’s tweets before they went live. Or if they do monitor, how is it possible that a red flag didn’t go up from anyone on the Kenneth Cole PR team?

It points to a larger responsibility for corporate PR departments.  They must be more than the mouthpiece for the organization and whoever occupies the corner office.  They have to also serve as the moral conscience for the company.  What if the tweet was racially insensitive, demeaning of people’s lifestyle choices or even a jocular reference to the need to kill more cattle for leather for all those KC shoes and bags?  Wouldn’t the alarm bells on those issues sound loud for the folks in corp comm?  Then why not for issues associated with global unrest, or the move toward democracy?  Really, the need is great to be able to understand that a global corporation like KC MUST be sensitive to global issues and must demonstrate that sensitivity through the careful choice of words and the performance of a genuine commitment.

A flood of tweets are being posted by the second with the “#Cairo” hashtag, so this shows me that KC took more than two seconds to compose this. I don’t think it was a “caught in the moment” tweet. He thought strategically about hijacking a hashtag so his tweet could be viewed by the millions of people monitoring the conversation in Cairo today.

After some backlash from the social media world, not to mention coverage on CNN this afternoon, he offered a follow-up tweet, pictured below.

His, or his PR teams’ apparent thought behind this initial follow-up comes off as an attempt to “sweep it under the rug, and hope that takes care of that.”  His prior tweet, in no way, shows how he “understands the sensitivity of this historic moment.”

As the day progressed, he took down the original tweet, and directed everyone to Facebook for a more formal apology.

This response is better than his first attempt, but deleting a tweet? Talk about sweeping your problems under the rug.

CEOs, PR reps, social media managers and others who tweet on behalf of a brand or company (or any respectable person who tweets for personal accounts) should learn a lesson from Kenneth Cole:  the social universe is a global one.  Your comments reach far and your impact is wide.  At the very least, think before you tweet.  Type it and let it marinade for a while before pressing SEND.

What brands say on social media is part of how their audience defines them–even if tweets are deleted to cover up mistakes. And when an iconic American brand says hurtful and insensitive things, it helps mold everyone else’s opinion of all Americans.   So thanks for that, KC!

We know social media isn’t meant to be scripted. It allows companies to connect with their audience like never before. It’s not always perfect or predictable, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is to make light of a very devastating situation in order to sell your spring line.

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