Kenneth Cole’s Reputation and the Speed of Social Media

Social media commentators make hay from others’ missteps. Much like your favorite talking heads, we cluck at brands, companies and government agencies who are bravely stepping into the new world of social media. As boundaries and best practices are being defined, missteps are not just expected, but happen with regularity. Social media “experts” grandly point out the carcasses of companies and agencies that went too far, too fast and stepped over the boundary of the moment. Cluck, cluck.

But, the carcasses seem to be few and far between anymore. Think about the latest social media foils. We all dismissively tweeted their lack of foresight and were appropriately ashamed. And then we moved on. And so did everyone else.

Recently, Mr. Kenneth Cole, of design house Kenneth Cole fame, posted a promotional message to Twitter:

Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is available online at -KC

Given the recent events in Egypt, did you cluck and shake your head? I did. How tone deaf, I said.

Then a funny thing happened. Nothing.

While we patted ourselves on the back about how morally superior we were, Mr. Cole deleted the message, issued an apology and moved on.

And the world followed.

By the end of the day, Kenneth Cole’s stock price was up nearly two percent, and their official Twitter account had gained nearly 1,000 new followers, including all of us who righteously unfollowed the account in a huff.

This article in AdAge picked up on this phenomenon and even detailed the progression of the story/non-story. They postulate that the reason is because social media gaffes just don’t give everyone the vapors like they used to.

In each case, the cycle of how consumers react to a brand is generally the same, but what’s changing is that the cycle is speeding up. Each time a brand experiences a social-media blunder, the event blows up and moves through the seven stages below faster and faster before the whole thing vanishes in a puff of smoke.

The author gives some of the credit to parody social media accounts, like those used to perfection during the Deepwater Horizon spill, tended to refocus the discussion away from the outrage and towards the (crowdsourced) humor of the gaffe. Righteous indignation will never stand up to silly social commentary. (Crisis communication consultants, I see a niche that can be filled here; distracting humorous social media accounts! For Pete’s sake, just don’t get caught!)

While I agree with the author’s very astute observations and feel that his reasoning is sound, I wonder if there’s more to it than just that. I wonder if it has to do with the professionalization of social media PR and the soundness of the recent infringers.

According to the timeframe given by the AdAge article, Mr. Cole posted an apology in two hours. The offending message was deleted just two hours later and a more full apology went live. If that doesn’t scream professional PR folks’ heads exploding and crazily doing damage control, I don’t know what does. Before, it would take many more hours or days before the offending message was noted and many more hours before an apology was crafted and posted, if ever! Nowadays, four hours from offense to response is, well, kind of slow. Just as the critics have gotten quicker, the PR folks have gotten quicker.

My second reason is, admittedly a bit out of my realm of expertise, but was the first thing that came to my mind. Kenneth Cole has a history of socially conscious messaging, it’s part of their shtick. I argue that because they’ve established their reputation through a variety of positive messages, the public realized this message wasn’t indicative of a particularly “anti-freedom/anti-democratic” bent by the corporation. It was just a poorly crafted message that they ultimately regretted posting. As a counter-point, take BP and the recent Deepwater Horizon spill. The public thought BP had profit as their main motivation and consequently distrusted their pro-environment messages. This is why I’m such a huge advocate of agencies and companies establishing their reputation online. When something goes wrong you are not just a blank slate to be painted by the negative event, the public has to weight the new information against your established identity.