Social business is all fun and games … until someone tweets about sports.

As the world is riveted by the World Cup in Brazil this month, it’s no surprise that social media has been a key rallying point for soccer fans around the world to cheer, celebrate, and lament the fate of their favorite teams. Social media is ideally suited for these types of events.

What is surprising, however, is that two companies with very mature social media operations — both global airlines — managed to generate backlash against their brands.

In the first instance, Delta was attempting to show their support for Team USA in their upcoming match against Ghana. They represented the U.S. visually using an image of the Statue of Liberty, and Ghana with a picture of a giraffe — an unfortunate choice given that Ghana has no native giraffe population. Delta was critiqued for its ignorance of global destinations, with some even calling the tweet racist.

In the second instance, Netherlands-based KLM was celebrating the Dutch team’s emotional, come-from-behind victory over Mexico. Soon after the game, KLM tweeted “adios amigos” with a picture of an airport “Departure” sign that featured an image depicting an otherwise faceless man with a large mustache and a sombrero — a stereotype that understandably upset many Mexican fans, who called the tweet in poor taste as well as racist.

It is worth examining these missteps in further detail. If these two very seasoned and respected social media presences can err in this environment, something about it likely caught them off guard. As such, the World Cup can provide some important insights about the evolving world of social business, including important limitations of conventional wisdom.

Remember that you have customers supporting both sides. It’s likely no coincidence that both companies involved in these situations are airlines with global customer bases. That means they have loyal customers who will be supporting each team in any contest. It is understandable — and good public relations — for a company to express support for its home country or hometown team. But at the same time, the audience on social media is global, and companies should always expect supporters of the other team to overhear what you say.

Companies should be wary of supporting one team at the expense of the other. All supportive statements should be crafted with the potential audience in mind — meaning, people who have strong ties to both the winning and losing teams.

It’s also no coincidence that both companies were charged, with some justification, with being “racist.” The tweets caricatured members of the opposing side rather than treating them as valuable people and customers. Since the opposing teams represented nations rather than an organization in the sports business, the tweets were aimed not at supporters of a sports “brand,” but at customers who identified with the nationality and culture represented by the teams. In KLM’s case, this was particularly wince-worthy because the message was, in essence, a taunt.

Know your audience before posting. One reason that the Delta post likely garnered such backlash is that it introduced doubts about its business competency. After all, Delta is a global airline that has flights into Accra daily. At best, it suggested that Delta did not know much about their locations. At worst, it suggested Delta lumped certain customers in categories using harmful stereotypes. Although it was likely a simple mistake by a social media worker with limited knowledge of global geography and populations, it reflected poorly on the company’s core business.

Companies should have internal subject matter experts in place who can be made accessible prior to the release of relevant content. John Glaser, CEO of Siemens Healthcare, noted in our Spring 2014 article on social business that he prescreens his own social media communications by a small global audience of trusted advisors to prevent these types of miscommunications.

Limitations of real-time marketing: emotion. Oreo demonstrated the potential benefits of real-time sports marketing with their “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” tweet during the Superbowl blackout. The KLM situation, however, demonstrates its potential drawbacks.

One reason people enjoy watching and following sports is that they become emotionally invested in their teams. Fans of winning teams look to celebrate. Fans of losing teams often feel dejected and angry. These emotions can raise the stakes of social media communication, particularly during, or just after, a key game — and the more dramatic or important the game, the more heightened the emotions.

Such emotionally charged environments can create potentially dangerous situations for companies in social media. If employees are emotionally invested in an event — as was likely the case with KLM following the dramatic win — these emotions may influence the messages employees post to a company’s social media accounts.

Emotions may also influence how customers perceive these posts, amplifying even small gaffes and providing upset supporters of the losing side an opportunity to lash out. The result is that your company’s social media presence can become the location where disappointed fans air their grievances.

One solution: Craft content prior to an event’s outcome, when emotions are more subdued. After all, the number of possible outcomes of a sporting event is relatively limited. It may limit a company’s flexibility to respond in “real time,” but such limits may be beneficial in highly charged situations.

Informality has its limits. Companies are often encouraged to develop an informal and often playful voice with their social media presence. Doing so can build rapport with customers. In sports, this informality is often expressed in good-natured ribbing of one’s competitors, more colloquially known as “trash talking.” This type of informality, while often appropriate on the field or in the arena, should be avoided in social business. Context matters — a trash-talking athlete can grin or high-five an opponent to show it’s all in good fun, but a corporate Twitter account can’t. Social media trash talk can result in negative feelings by people who do not understand or appreciate this type of informality.

I can’t help but be reminded of Bull Durham, a movie about minor-league baseball, in which an experienced athlete is passing on advice to a younger colleague on dealing with the media. “You’re gonna have to learn your clichés — they’re your friends.” Sports clichés may be boring, but they also don’t get anyone upset and result in a social media firestorm. With a global social media audience ready to respond, it’s more important than ever to be a good sport with social business.

1 Comment On: Be a Good Sport With Social Media

  • Titomelega | July 7, 2014

    So sad to see these mature social companies make this kind of mistakes. It would have been so much more fitting to congratulate the winning side then offer lower departures rates and in-flight perks to the other as a sympathy prize. A show of heart, support, and a win win for all.

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