The Tweet, the Whole Tweet and Nothing But the Tweet: Social Media Lessons From the NYT Debacle

On my first official day back in the office following a few days off for the holidays, I learned that not all was merry and bright in the PR world as the story of the New York Times gaffe was taking center stage. In nutshell: the paper mistakenly sent a special offer to subscribers who recently cancelled their subscriptions to sign back up. Basic marketing tactic, right? Absolutely – except instead of going to the intended 300 former subscribers it accidentally went to more than eight-million subscribers. Still, honest mistake – all the Times had to do was apologize to those eight million and let them know the email was sent in error. Simple.  Except, not so much. Rather, the Times claimed the email was spam – and thrust itself into a communications nightmare.

So many things are wrong with this story – and they’ll be plenty of blog posts and media espousing on what the Times did wrong and the “could haves, should haves, would haves” of the situation. What I found of most interest is the role that social media played in this public relations disaster.

Let’s be clear – Twitter alone did not make this story balloon to the proportions it did; the Times sending emails to eight-million subscribers and subsequently claiming it was spam guaranteed that. However, that initial tweet – telling the Times 4.2 million followers to “ignore [the email]; it wasn’t from us” – certainly took the story beyond the Times subscribers and the publication’s newsroom, providing just the latest example of the viral power of social media.

The entire situation is not only a case study for how to fail at crisis communications, but it also shines a light on the critical role of managing social media channels. In today’s social media-driven world, channels like Twitter, Facebook or Quora are often the first place people turn for everything from news updates to product reviews. They’re great tools for organizations to establish a dialogue with customers or consumers, get information out instantaneously and develop brand creditability. And that same brand creditability is what is most at risk when the channels are not managed properly and strategically.

I don’t know who maintains the @nytimes Twitter account for the New York Times and what his or her experience level or involvement in the company’s corporate communications strategy is like. However, a quick search for “social media” on Monster.com brings up more than 1,000 results – most of which require “two-plus years’ experience.”  So for some major corporations, two years is enough experience to be responsible for an organization’s entire social brand and reputation. Does that make sense?

Regardless of experience level for social media specialists (which – in my opinion – should at least be on par with a communications manager’s experience), one of the most important things we can take away from the Times debacle is the need to give the social media manager a seat at the table. He or she needs to be more than just an aggregator of content, but someone who is intimately involved in the organization’s overall communications strategy and is making sure that there is a true plan on what – and when – information is disseminated through social channels.

On a number of levels, more foresight and strategy – and simply telling the truth – would have helped the New York Times handle its crisis more effectively. But it is also a reminder that an experienced, involved and strategic social media manager – who has the voice and authority to influence the communications strategy – is key for any organization looking to grow its social footprint and maintain its reputation.

What did you think of the Times social media strategy during this crisis? What are your thoughts on the experience level – and strategic role – of the social media specialist?