After a Social Media Gaffe: How to Recover and Not Dig a Bigger Hole

Most of us have been there — realizing, the moment we click “send,” that our message is going to the wrong person. Now imagine that you’ve sent that message to a million strangers.

The American Red Cross, part of the world’s largest humanitarian operation, is a serious operation. It coordinates staff, volunteers, and other agencies and donors to help people in moments of deep crisis, such as after hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.

Of course, the organization also has a sense of humor. Its Twitter feed, for instance, recently included a playlist of summer songs and a cute Vine video of people giving blood in beach gear.

Still, it took some nimble thinking in the middle of the night to turn what could have been a major media headache into a moment of levity that strengthened the brand.

Wendy Harman was the organization’s director of social engagement and social strategy when this particular social moment happened (her current title is director of Red Cross information management and situational awareness in disaster cycle services). In a recent Q&A with MIT Sloan Management Review, Harman describes the incident and how it played out:

“#Gettngslizzerd” happened pretty late at night when my colleague accidentally tweeted from the Red Cross Twitter handle when she meant to tweet from her personal account. She tweeted something about finding a four-pack of Midas Touch beer, which is a Dogfish Head brand, and she added, “when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzerd."

She teaches Zumba, and she’d just made a routine to the song Like a G6 where the lyrics are, “When we drink, we do it right, we’re getting slizzered.” And so that was on her brain.

What happened after it went out was that there were thousands and thousands of tweets in response saying, “The Red Cross is drunk.” Lots of people loved it. On the other hand, it was kind of scary for some people, too.

I was in bed asleep when it happened and I was awakened by a colleague in Chicago who saw it — I’ve shared my real live phone number with a lot of my social media counterparts at other big nonprofit organizations, and we sort of pledged to take care of one another if something like this should ever happen.

I saw a lot of activity and I didn’t know what was going on. I was still a little groggy. I deleted the tweet, and then I woke up a little more and I remembered how a week earlier I was on a Facebook group for nonprofits talking about how much I love it when there are these mis-tweets. I thought they show a sort of window into the soul of an organization. I had never seen any institution that this has happened to where they just said, “Look, we did it, this was a mistake.” I figured we’d try that, and I thought that it would work with a little bit of humor.

I called my friend in Chicago back, because I knew she was watching it and was awake. And we brainstormed the tweet that we’d put out in response. I ended up writing, “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” And it hit the right note. It’s sort of that meme-ology thing. Everybody wants to pile on and be a part of this thing that’s bigger than themselves. I think that they were delighted that we could be in on it too, and they thought that that was really fun.

Harman says that the attention the mis-tweet got and the American Red Cross’ response was huge. “Our blog got crashed, and it didn’t even get crashed during Haiti or any of the other huge disasters that we’ve had. It was a higher-trafficked event than most anything we’ve ever done.”

The organization capitalized on the attention: people donated more than the usual amount of money that day, and Harman coordinated with the beer company, Dogfish Head, to set up a donation site. Restaurants across the country joined in, too, offering free pints of beer to anyone who could prove they had given blood that day.

The fact that the organization — and Harman, in particular — had thought in advance about potential problems meant that she, on behalf of the organization, was able to react quickly and gracefully. People who became aware of a company’s social media presence because of the embarrassing moment were brought into the audience fold. Today, the American Red Cross’ Twitter feed has over 1.3 million followers.

For more on how organizations are using social media to enhance their work, take a look at the 2014 social business research report by MIT SMR and Deloitte, which was released earlier this month. It features facts and figures as well as comments from Harmon and other social business practitioners.