#McFail: How McDonald’s Twitter strategy went awry

The beauty of Social Media – the opportunities it provides for businesses to engage and interact with their customers, and vice-versa – can also be its curse if not done correctly. Just ask fast food giant McDonald‘s, which is cleaning up a major public relations mess after a Twitter ad campaign went so horribly awry that it earned the hashtag moniker “#McFail.”

As PaidContent.org‘s Jeff Roberts reports, McDonald’s launched a 24-hour campaign last week using Twitter’s “promoted tweets” function. This utility allows businesses, at a cost, to craft tweets that appear at the top of certain search results on Twitter. The idea is to get your tweet in front of Twitter users no matter when they happen to log on during the period of your campaign. You can read Twitter’s help center page on promoted tweets for more information.

In the case of McDonald’s, it used two different hashtags as part of its promoted tweets campaign. The first,

#MeetTheFarmers, went uneventfully. But at 2 p.m. last Wednesday, it switched to a new hashtag, #McDStories. The promoted tweet quoted a McDonald’s potato supplier, with a link to a video of a happy potato farmer. And that’s when McDonald’s lost control of things.

Twitter users began telling their own McDonald’s stories, and not ones that were exactly flattering to the company. Some were jokes by stoners, others referenced heart attacks (since fast food usually isn’t particularly healthy food) and others still referenced the ongoing fight between McDonald’s and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Within a few hours, the hashtag had become a trending topic on Twitter. And as a result, the promoted tweet in question has remained a “Top Tweet” even nearly a week after the debacle occurred.

The moral of the story: you need to be very careful before launching a campaign, particularly one on social media where people can respond directly. Do your research and try to envision how people might interpret your message before you send it. Just because McDonald’s believed that the #McDStories hashtag would encourage the sharing of positive stories does not mean customers will see it the same way.

In hindsight, if McDonald’s might have been better off keeping the original #MeetTheFarmers hashtag. Instead, it got a Big Mac-sized social media fail.

Are the obstacles to hospitals using Social Media really “myths?”

The Mayo Clinic and Ragan recently held their third annual Health Care Social Media summit. And among the presenters was popular writer and Social Media expert Shel Holtz, who debunked the myths that he says keep hospitals from utilizing Social Media.

I highly respect Mr. Holtz’s opinion, but I believe it is a stretch to call them myths. They are certainly obstacles hospitals can and should overcome. But they are legitimate obstacles.

Holtz specifically mentions the possible negative effect on workplace productivity, the risks of exposing the hospital’s networks to viruses and malware, HIPAA concerns and consuming the hospital’s bandwith. You can definitely overcome those obstacles by investing in sound IT infrastructure and putting clear guidelines in place and strictly enforcing them. Yes, hospitals can and do exaggerate the dangers of these potential pitfalls. But to call them myths is a similar exaggeration. Just ask any hospital that has been slapped with a fine and/or a lawsuit for revealing a patient’s identity on Social Media, however unintentionally.

Another reason hospitals, particularly religious ministry hospitals, block Social Media are ethical concerns. This was the case at one hospital I worked for, which is run by the Sisters of Mercy, a Roman Catholic religious order. Such institutions are not only providing healthcare, they are also doing so in the context of their religion’s principles and values. While we may not agree with another religion’s beliefs, how can we expect a hospital supported by a religion to not adhere to that religion’s beliefs?

Are there other reasons you can think of for why more hospitals aren’t using Social Media? Would you consider those reasons to be myths?

Social Media can be useful in emergencies

If any of you live in the Middle Atlantic states like I do, you experienced two natural disasters last week that are pretty much unheard of in this part of the country. On Tuesday, we got the 5.9 magnitude earthquake centered in Central Virginia that was felt as far away as Chicago. This weekend, we got Hurricane Irene, which ravaged the entire east coast from North Carolina to New England.

Perhaps it was somewhat apropos that the newest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has an article on how Social Media can be integrated into emergency-preparedness efforts. Dr. Raina Merchant, Dr. Nicole Lurie and Stacy Elmer write:

“Since these new media are so pervasive in communication (more than 40 million Americans, for instance, use social media Web sites multiple times a day), it makes sense to explicitly consider the best way of leveraging these communication channels before, during, and after disasters. “

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other government leaders relayed information to their constituents via their Twitter feeds. Businesses posted information about early closings on their Social Media feeds. People shared photos and videos of the two disasters – many admittedly just for fun, but others to genuinely inform. And in the chaos that emergencies such as Hurricane Irene bring, clear communication is vital.

The important thing the Christies and Bloombergs of the world need to remember, however, is that they need to listen to what their constituents are saying on Social Media during these emergencies as well. Don’t just use it as another means of shouting your talking points. If electricity is down or someone is in a bad cell phone reception area, Social Media may be their only way to communicate. One of my graduate school instructors, Leigh Fazzina, used Twitter to get rescued when she was injured in a bicycle crash in a wooded area with no cell phone reception. And Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker regularly monitors Twitter to identify potential and actual problems in his city and either address them himself or direct people to the agencies who can address them.

With Social Media, one size does NOT fit all

This past Sunday, on the weekly Healthcare Social Media tweet chat, we discussed whether or not patients need to find their own way with Social Media. Is there a right way for every patient, provider or hospital to use Social Media?

The answer to that question is a resounding NO.

One size does not fit all with Social Media. Sure, there are some general guidelines people (and certainly for providers and hospitals) should or must follow. But that’s the key – they’re general. What works specifically for one entity isn’t guaranteed to work for another, no matter how similar they appear to be. This is true for all fields.

In the case of healthcare patients, you particularly need to let them find their own way. Not everyone has the same degree of comfort in sharing information about their health over Social Media. For various reasons, not everyone can share the same information over Social Media. And people have different degrees of comfort using these new tools at all. As with any tool, Social Media can backfire if you don’t know what you’re doing with it.

Similarly, not all healthcare providers can or should use Social Media the exact same way. Their patients are different, with unique needs and characteristics.

Think of it this way: if you were a public relations professional pitching a story for a pharmaceutical company in the Philadelphia area, you wouldn’t pitch the story to the Doylestown (Pa.) Intelligencer or the Philadelphia Inquirer the same way you’d pitch it to Drug Topics. Or, to use a non-PR example, you don’t tell a story to a 4-year-old child the exact same way you’d tell it to a 30-year-old adult.

When working with clients, agencies should help them develop specific plans tailored to their specific needs, then teach them how to execute those plans. Whether you hire an agency to help you or go completely on your own, you need to carefully develop and execute your own strategy, a strategy based on methodical research of your customers or patients, the market you serve and your competition. A generic, one-size-fits-all approach is not only lazy, but a recipe for failure.

U.K.’s proposed Social Media ban is too late

Social Media played a significant role in two of the major political uprisings of recent years – the post-election protests in Iran in 2009 and the demonstrations in Egypt this past spring which ultimately led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. And it is reportedly playing a major role in this week’s massive riots in London and across the United Kingdom – to the point that, according to MediaPost’s Erik Sass, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that they should consider laws allowing officials to ban people from using Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media platforms if they believe they are using them to organize riots or otherwise plotting violence.

Cameron also reportedly said that U.K. home secretary Theresa May will meet with executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Research In Motion, which makes Blackberry devices, to determine the feasibility of a social media ban.

Let’s put aside the obvious civil liberties argument here. There is another problem with this action that is more pertinent to this blog’s discussion of communication technologies – it’s too late.

The horse is already out of the barn. The riots have been going on for a week. Even if officials can develop a means to block people using Social Media for these purposes without inadvertently violating the freedoms of those not doing so, it’s too late to make a difference.

Plus don’t forget that, if these people can access Social Media, they also likely have text-messaging and other communications tools to set up riots, flash mobs and other illegal behavior. Even the most basic mobile phones can do that. Blocking their access to Facebook and Twitter is akin to playing Whack-A-Mole: as soon as you knock one mole down, another pops up. Are they going to take all mobile phones away?

It is sad to see the images of these riots on TV and the societal problems in the U.K. that appear to have led to them. But blocking Social Media access, in addition to being hypocritical (after all, we applauded the people of Iran and Egypt for rising up), simply won’t work. It’s way too little way too late.

 

Social media can be powerful…if used properly

Phil Baumann is one of the healthcare industry’s top social media voices. A nurse by training, Baumann runs the website Health Is Social and was writing about the ways Twitter could be used in healthcare before many healthcare organizations knew Twitter existed. And in a recent blog post, he raised the question of whether or not  healthcare marketers are ruining Twitter by overusing hashtags, sending out spam and other lame tweets simply to shout their message and otherwise abusing what can and should be a very powerful communications tool.

The same lesson applies to other industries.

Social Media is not only another tool your business can leverage to improve its product/service offering, it’s something that businesses should use if it adds value to your business. But as with any tool, you need to use Social Media correctly or it could backfire. Just as a construction worker shouldn’t use a jackhammer without knowing how to use it and what to use it for, nor should a communications professional use Social Media.

The key to using Social Media properly is the ability to listen to what your customers are saying about your product and/or its market. Social Media allows even Ordinary Joes and Janes to become, in essence, Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs in marketing venacular) if they’re followed by enough people interested in the subject. A tweet or blog post is not just another means of shouting your message the way you would with a television advertisement.

Loading your tweets up with hashtags just to maximize your tweet’s exposure won’t turn that exposure into a return on your investment. If anything, it will come across as just another cheap play for their interest. Same for sending out an automatic tweet to someone whenever they follow you. The most annoying ones are the automatic tweets that you receive whenever you mention a product in a tweet, regardless of the context. I randomly mentioned the iPad in a tweet one Sunday night during my weekly participation in the Healthcare Social Media tweet chat and promptly received two autotweets from people offering to sell me an iPad. Oh joy.

Don’t use Social Media unless you’ve thought through what you want to get out of it, you know how to use it and you and your organization are ready to make the commitment necessary to do it. When you are ready to jump in, be ready to do a whole lot of listening and reacting. Save the one-way shouting for your paid advertising and media outreach.

Do it, but do it right.

The news is social

Last Thursday, I officially graduated from Temple University’s School of Communications and Theater with my Master of Science degree in Communication Management. Even if the ceremony felt anticlimactic compared to my undergraduate graduation from Boston University seven years ago, it was still a great afternoon.

One of the highlights was the commencement speaker – NBC News President Steve Capus (shown in the fuzzy picture to the left). Among the topics he discussed were how this was a fine hour for journalism. There has been a lot in the news lately – the tsunami that ravaged Japan, the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, the long-awaited capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden and the start of the 2012 Presidential election campaign, for starters. And Capus – admittedly tooting his own horn a bit – praised the work his staff has done to bring those stories to their viewers.

His speech also got me thinking about how the tools of journalists have changed just since Capus’ ascension to his current post in 2005, let alone since he graduated from Temple 25 years ago. I’ve written here before about how there is more of a rush to get the story first. And tools like Twitter allow NBC and other news outlets to do just that.

I first was alerted to Bin Laden’s death by Twitter. It was late on a Sunday night. I had just finished my participation in the weekly #hcsm (Health care social media) tweetchat on Twitter, and was preparing to shut off TweetDeck and call it a night, with a work day looming only a few hours later. All of a sudden, tweets started popping up in my feed stating that President Obama would speak to the nation shortly. It started as a few tweets posted by reporters and media outlets that I followed, and got retweeted by many others. When the media outlets confirmed that the address was to announce the killing of Bin Laden, the same thing happened. The media outlets used the 140 characters allowed by Twitter to get a brief message out to the masses and get them to tune in to their TV broadcast or read their website/publication. In short, it worked exactly the same as  some ordinary joe sharing a link to a TMZ story on their favorite celebrity.

Twitter even plays a role in the events themselves. An otherwise anonymous IT specialist became a global celebrity when he happened to be in Abbotabad, Pakistan and on Twitter during the Bin Laden raid and inadvertently live-tweeted  the most significant event to date in the War on Terror. During the uprising in Egypt, protesters used Twitter to share photos and accounts of the event, just as they did two years earlier during the Iranian Election protests.

This doesn’t include people sharing videos of the “celebrations” after Bin Laden’s death on YouTube and the sharing of content on Facebook that ensued after these major events.

The way news is delivered is changing to reflect the new tools available. The journalists and media outlets that can use those tools the best will be the ones who shine the brightest when big news occurs.

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