By Megan Bauer
The Hoffman Agency, Portland-Vancouver 

It was just another casual Sunday morning until IHOP sent out a tweet that left fans questioning the brand’s actual voice. Here it is in its syrupy glory:

As with any good social media crisis, a rush of comments came in immediately noting how ridiculous and offensive the tweet was:

This left IHOP in an odd place. The company removed the comment and issued a response apologizing:

The bottom line? A majority of consumers were insulted by the brand’s comment, which ultimately affects how IHOP can connect with current (and future) customers. But let’s take a step back and look at this from a communications perspective.

As more consumer brands try to develop a persona in the social media space (such as IHOP’s teenage-like voice), there is more room for error and a negative response. A little dose of humor can go a long way, but as we see in IHOP’s case, it can also backfire.

While several studies have shown that consumers want brands to be like people, companies can walk a fine line as they are communicating with the entire social media world from center stage. Every fan has a different sense of humor, which can make it difficult to differentiate between funny and offensive for each individual person.

As most public relations professionals do, I think more strategically (as well as critically) about what I share on my social media channels — this is also the case for any brand’s social media channels I’m working on. While that doesn’t mean that I lose my personality or who I am, it does mean being more thoughtful about how I package what is being said or shared.

Some brands are still finding their way in the social media game and haven’t had as much time to experiment in building a persona that connects with their audiences. However, companies can take a few hints from the PR handbook, if they want to be more human-like, without being offensive:

  1. Think before you share: Is this something you would say to your friends, parents or teachers? Is there anyone in your life who would be offended by this comment?
  2. Avoid major trigger topics: These are posts in categories that consumers are hypersensitive to, such as sexism, racism or politics. Would you feel comfortable bringing this topic up in conversation with someone you just met?
  3. Run it by someone: When in doubt, use your resources at work. There may be someone with an outside perspective that you hadn’t thought of. Social media is often a group effort for brands.
  4. Remember what role you’re playing: You might be responsible for crafting content and messaging, but remember, you’re doing it on behalf of a company.

At the end of the day, brands, like people, are not perfect — and that includes IHOP. It will never be possible to keep everyone happy. But as brand managers and PR professionals, we can strive to show a brand’s personality, while not insulting customers.

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