Could one tweet sink a 25-year-old media brand?
is finding out and, believe it or not, the incident offers a lesson for brands—beyond not insulting a child or using crass language.
With minutes left in Sunday’s Oscars telecast, The Onion sent a tweet
in which it referred to nine-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis
as a very bad word, otherwise known as the C-word. Almost immediately, negative social media sentiment around the brand spiked. According to data provided by NetBase
, 64 percent of mentions about The Onion
were negative after the tweet, compared with just 29 percent before it insulted the young actress.
You don’t need stats to understand that people were angry. Even though the tweet was deleted, a storm of criticism engulfed The Onion
. It seemed that an apology was in order to squelch the firestorm.
But The Onion
publishes satire. As Forbes Jeff Bercovici noted
this week, no one—not the children murdered on Chicago’s streets, nor the victims of pedophilia—is safe from The Onion
’s pen. So, naturally, the media outlet would stick by its tweet if, for no other reason, to satisfy its loyal readers.
This Catch-22 is “strange new ground” in crisis PR, said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of strategic communications firm Levick
Yet, fewer than 12 hours after the tweet, The Onion
offered a mea culpa
. In a statement posted to Facebook
, CEO Steve Hannah said he was “deeply sorry.”
“On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.”
He promised to discipline the individuals responsible.
'The right call'
Sure enough, some of The Onion
’s fans were shocked by the mea culpa
One of the more than 7,000 comments to the apology on Facebook said:
“I thought there was a punch line at the end of this apology ... What gives? They jokingly called a girl a cuss word? How is this a big deal. ... Are they going to start apologizing to everyone now? Long list!”
On that note, Jeff Bercovici at Forbes
“Telling comedy writers that they can now be ‘disciplined’ for telling jokes that fall well within The Onion’s established parameters, just because a lot of humorless people happened to be paying attention at the moment a particular joke hit—that’s a new low.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said
pulling the tweet and apologizing for it was the right call, but the move creates a slippery slope.
“The world is crazy enough,” she wrote. “Having to take The Onion
seriously, even for the length of an apology, is too much. So I wish they hadn’t tweeted it.”
Not far enough
But they did tweet it, and as many more commenters on Facebook and Twitter will attest, the apology was limp and didn’t go far enough. Steve Rubel agrees.
“They didn’t follow the classic crisis management play,” said Rubel, who was named Edelman’s
chief content strategist this week.
According to Gene Grabowski, a formula has emerged for redemption, and The Onion
has not followed it. The formula requires three steps:
- Apologize and be sincere;
- Be contrite and act on it;
- Let time pass before reemerging.
got half of the first step right, but it didn’t offer enough details about the tweet nor what it plans to do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
That final point could be important for The Onion
’s advertising department, which is forging partnerships with large brands—such as Hilton Hotels, Clorox, Ford, and Microsoft—to create online content, according to a report in Advertising Age
. For instance, it helped Microsoft launch a self-aware Tumblr for its Explorer 10 called “The Browser You Loved to Hate
Despite the backlash, Rubel thinks the controversy will soon blow over.
“While they made a significant error and apologized, the long-term impact will not be significant,” said Rubel. “The Onion
puts a lot of goodwill out there by way of good content that’s very, very entertaining.
“People will continue to read The Onion
Grabowski also believes the tweet won't damage the The Onion
brand, although he thinks it could take the outlet months to recover.
According to Rubel, the incident offers a lesson for other brands—make great content. By investing in your audience and giving them something useful or entertaining, they will stick by when controversy strikes.
However, Rubel said few brands are practicing this.
“Too many brands, in any kind of vehicle, take a message mindset instead of a content mindset,” he explained, citing the 80/20 rule—that is, 80 percent of your content should be for or about your audience, while 20 percent is about you.
“In a crisis situation [the 80/20 model] can help you out,” Rubel said. “If you’ve been doing this for a long time, you’ve created enough value that people will stick with you, whereas if you’re using it to promote yourself all of the time, the deck is stacked more in favor of” your detractors.
Maybe, just maybe …
Of course, there’s also the idea that The Onion
meant to spark a social media controversy. Despite the negative sentiment, overall mentions of the brand spiked, according to NetBase. It also picked up a number of new Facebook followers.
Grabowski entertained the notion. “We live in an age in which notoriety is not much different than fame,” he said. An incident such as this “used to fall into the notoriety category, but it’s confused now with fame.”
And that’s the makings of a story for The Onion