Accidental Blame

A couple of weeks ago I drove back to Westport, Conn., from a client meeting in Tarrytown, N.Y. In order to avoid the dreaded I-95 rush-hour traffic, I took the Merritt Parkway. En route I called my COO to chat about a few work-related issues and for the next 35 minutes, until I reached the Route 7 connector, I had seven dropped calls.

So much for hands-free driving.

I was fuming and when I got home (no texting and driving for me), I tweeted the following: “AT&T you are awesome – 7 dropped calls on the ride from Tarrytown to Westport. Sheesh.” To which I get the following response from @glemak: “If that was via the merritt happens for all cellular networks — its a vortex.”

The Merritt is a nightmare when it comes to cell reception, so what’s the problem with this picture? Why am I not satisfied and, more importantly, why should AT&T be concerned?

For starters, I hate AT&T with a passion. I’m one of their millions of “loyal” customers who resignedly gives them business because all carriers suck and because I have an unhealthy lurve for the iPhone. Secondly, I’m an emotional beast. You know — it’s the single biggest reason why advertising has survived this long: Emotions! And when it comes to emotions, feelings trump logic and facts. Thirdly, as marketing lore explains, perception is reality. I know I’m going to have one or two dropped calls on the Merritt — perhaps more. But seven? Come on.

None of this bodes well for a calm, cool and collected dissection of the events, and the commensurate blame.

Perhaps if I had a better relationship with AT&T, I’d be more forgiving. Perhaps if I was with Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile, I would have had 12 dropped calls. I’ll never know because no one reached out to me to compare service coverage on the Merritt on a provider-by-provider basis.

Can you see where this is going?

According to new research from Penn State, a full 20 percent of all tweets mention brands by name. My AT&T comment was perhaps throwaway to most, but it leaves a mark. I have almost 14,000 followers and should any of them “retweet” me, the number of potential viewers increases exponentially. More importantly, tweets are not as fleeting as we might think. They’re being crawled, spidered and indexed by Google, and are even considered now to be binding evidence in court.

Some companies (perhaps even AT&T) are monitoring their tweets, together with other social media-related mentions. This column, however, is not about why companies should be monitoring what their consumers say about them. Nor is it about the importance of responding and engaging in meaningful dialogue.

It’s about accidental blame.

Accidental blame has nothing to do with technology, digital or social media. Think of accidental blame as a visceral reaction or gut allegation more likely than not unfounded in fact. And it’s going to kill marketers if they don’t know how to respond and react to it.

It’s the modern day equivalent of walking into the corner of a dining room table and cussing out the table when the real culprit is the owner of the errant hip. Only now the entire “room” is filled with about 1,000,000 of your closest strangers…

Among the myriad consumer conversations that occur every single day — whether face-to-face, via e-mail or social networks — there’s going to be a disproportionate amount of speculation, creative or editorial license, embellishment and, oftentimes, just plain inaccuracies. Now more than ever it’s critical to dispel these threads before they fester and before they become part of the “permanent record,” a.k.a. the Long Tail of Reputation.

Whether it’s a bank being blamed for the current economic meltdown or an airline being blamed for a weather-related delay, there’s no shame in addressing the issue at hand head-on and showing a bit of humanity — even vulnerability — in the process. Empathy, genuine concern and an earnest attempt to “set the record straight” goes a long way. And there’s no harm in asking for some kind of acknowledgement in the form of a revision or update to the original blog post, a clarifying tweet or refresh of a wall, status update or profile. Just be sure to use the same vehicle that was originally used and speak to the same audience. 

You’re probably familiar with the game of broken telephone. Today the same thing is happening with brands on a regular basis and, more often than not, this has the potential to wreak havoc on reputation management and even crisis communications. That’s the bad news. The good news is marketers have the power to nip this in the bud at the earliest possible moment in time. But in order to do so they’ll need to be present, engaged and pragmatic. Their role is not to scold, lecture consumers on why they’re wrong or to be defensive, but to authentically, politely and carefully clear their names (or at the very minimum, shift the monkey to somebody else’s back).

And by the way, next time you want an uninterrupted conversation driving from New York to Connecticut, avoid the Merritt.

And AT&T.

Oops, I did it again.

Joseph Jaffe is chief interruptor of crayon. He can be reached at jaffe@crayonville.com or @jaffejuice.