JC Penney felt the hard bite of social media last week when it released a back-to-school T-shirt for young girls with the message: "I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me."
To its credit, JC Penney reacted quickly before the story blew out of control.
There's so much wrong with this shirt's message that it's hard to know where to begin. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who thought so. The reaction on Twitter was swift and harsh. Mommy bloggers in particular quickly began a Twitter campaign and online petition against the T-shirt.
CBS News reported that the power of social media was on full display as JC Penney pulled the T-shirt from its Website within hours of the social networking assault. In fact, JC Penney didn't know what hit it.
And good for the people who held forth on social sites. Is this the message we want to send our daughters –- that getting by on looks and cheating is OK? I really hope not.
But the real message here is the power of social media to spread a negative message about your company startlingly fast, and companies everywhere should be paying attention to that point. Every one of your screw-ups is going to be magnified in the days of Twitter, Facebook, and, increasingly, Google+. This should be a wake-up call to every organization out there that you must be monitoring social media for company mentions, and when the tide turns negative, you have to react quickly, or you will get swept away in a tidal wave of bad publicity.
In his latest book, Real-Time Marketing and PR, the author and speaker David Meerman Scott writes about the need for companies to engage with their customers in real-time. Scott warns that companies have to abandon old-fashioned notions of planning public relations and marketing months in advance. "It's a real-time world now, and if you're not engaged, you're on your way to marketplace irrelevance."
To JC Penney's credit, it appeared to be watching, because it reacted quickly. That may be because this wasn't the first time it felt the burn of social media. Back in 2008, the company released an ad aimed at teens that brought a similar kind of attention its way. As I described it at the time on DaniWeb:
It depicted two teens getting ready for a date by timing how fast they could get dressed. At the end of the ad, the boy comes over to the girl’s house, and they let the stern looking Mom know they are going to “hang out” in the basement.
The implication was that the teens were going to have sex, and JC Penney was condoning it with the ad. There was a strong backlash on social media and elsewhere. At the time, I saw this as an opportunity for JC Penney to get some much-needed viral marketing publicity, but it tried to distance itself from the ad instead of embracing it.
The "I'm too pretty" T-shirt was clearly a different story (at least in my view). This was a case of seeing a bad idea and making the intelligent corporate decision to cut losses and kill the story's momentum.
As Scott points out in his book, when companies fail to react or try to defend bad moves through traditional media channels, it just keeps the negative story alive in social media channels, and that's the last thing you want.
The bottom line is that companies need to be monitoring online networks, and there are myriad tools out there to help you do that. Ignoring social media is the equivalent of sticking your head in the sand and hoping it will go away.
JC Penney has learned that if you stop the bleeding, the story will fade. And that's a big PR lesson for everyone.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.