Deleting offensive Tweets doesn’t make the problem go away

Every other day, the internet is up in arms about something a corporation has posted on a social networking site, often with good reason. Some companies post really awful things, and it’s important to talk about those things when they happen — to discuss the problem, to challenge companies on why they thought it was appropriate, to do some outreach and education. But the corporate response often seems to involve quietly deleting the post and pretending it didn’t happen, which both fans the flames and doesn’t really accomplish anything.

The internet never forgets. As soon as a company posts something ridiculous, someone is screencapping it and people are sharing and quoting it. Deleting the post won’t make those screencaps and quotes vanish, and just makes a company look more guilty — creating a lacuna in the conversation about what it has done just highlights the thing that is absent rather than acknowledging its presence and moving forward. In this sense, it’s akin to quietly shoving a pile of vomit under the couch. It’s still there, and it still smells, even though no one can see it.

This isn’t just about the internet never forgetting and outrage culture and whether companies can ever catch a break for honest mistakes, though. The issue is also one of a lack of understanding about the connection between a need to acknowledge behaviour and a need to apologise for it. One is easy enough — a company can say ‘yes, we Tweeted a thing and it was bad, so we deleted it,’ which is not the best move, but is still understandable. Actually apologising, however, is much trickier, and despite numerous instructive events, companies can’t seem to get this right.

Whenever companies foul themselves up on social media, I tend to see a very distinct pattern. It starts with putting up the offending post in the first place. Then followers start commenting on it, and it draws in the attention of people who are not followers, but who keep an eye out for that sort of thing. The company’s social media intern, clearly starting to panic, starts responding to every single comment, usually with a canned line or two. ‘We sorry if you were offended,’ that sort of thing. ‘It was meant to be a lighthearted…’ and so forth. This inflames people even more, and the company classically decides to take the next step, pulling the offending post down and hoping it puts out the fire.

A sharp company with a good PR and social media team issues a sharp, clear statement identifying the problem, outlining why it understands how it messed up, and indicating how it hoped to do better in the future. That’s…not always the case. ABC Family, for example, issued a classic case of ‘pile of excuses with an apology buried somewhere in there‘ in response to criticism over a (pulled) social media posting that referred to a transgender character as ‘it.’ Rather than saying ‘we posted this and we understand that it was wrong after some education about trans issues, and we will be more respectful with our language in the future,’ ABC Family opted to explain the deep inner meaning of the post, and to admit that it might have been ‘confusing,’ so that’s why they pulled it.

Not because it was transphobic and viewers asked them to reconsider their language. No, it was just ‘confusing.’ Well, then, carry on. ABC Family. I’ll make a note to not watch your programming, because I’m concerned that it might be too confusing for me — which is a pity, because you’ve been a historically very progressive television network depicting a huge variety of lives and experiences. But I can’t trust you to do that authentically — or to do it in a way that won’t ‘confuse’ me — after reading that statement.

Other companies, apparently stuck in a previous era, opt to just not say anything at all. Poof, the posting was deleted, all is well! This has a tendency to enrage people to dizzying new heights, because they haven’t received a clear and simple apology that allows them to move on and they haven’t been subjected to a weird and patronising statement that they can push back on. They’re just being stonewalled by a company revealing its naked contempt for them and their concerns. I am truly trying to imagine why a company would think this is a good idea, given what historically happens to companies that don’t address public relations disasters — and yes, we live in an era when a single social networking post can turn into a disaster.

Many companies have social media people working in their publicity departments, with community or social media managers who focus very specifically in online environments while other PR staff handle print, radio, and so forth. Some of these staffers are at the cutting edge of understanding the intersections between social media and public relations, the need to recognise the climate of social media and behave accordingly. Others, not so much, and that’s when you get the old ‘the intern did it!’ excuse, reflecting a company that won’t just admit that it made a mistake, and is unwilling to learn from that mistake and resolve to change the way it interacts with members of the public in the future.

Someday, companies are going to learn that deleting a ‘bad’ social media post won’t make the problem go away, because the issue isn’t that the post is causing problems, but that the post reveals something troubling about the company that posted it.

Image: Bird Park KL, Phaliin Ooi, Flickr