Social Media

For Brands, Being on Twitter Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry


Cleveland Browns fans looking for some action on Super Bowl Sunday found their antagonist in Purell. The hand sanitizer brand took to Twitter during the game with a taunt about how the Broncos looked as bad as the Browns. By early Monday morning Purell had pulled the tweet, apologized on Twitter and on the website of Cleveland’s major newspaper, and promised that nothing like that would happen again.

And Purell wasn’t the only corporate Twitter account using the Super Bowl as pretext to tweet its foot in its mouth: MSNBC ran into trouble for a racially charged message about a Cheerios ad. The frequency with which companies tweet apologies can make it seem like they’re not doing much of anything else on social media.

There’s evidence to back this up. A study published recently by Ruth Page in the Journal of Pragmatics, which covers linguistics, looked at the way we apologize on Twitter, studying 1,183 apologies issued by corporations, celebrities, and normal folks between 2010 and 2012. The first finding: Corporations apologize a whole lot. Corporate accounts used the word “sorry” at 8.6 times the frequency of individuals, while the words “apology” or “apologize” pop 7.4 times more for corporations and the word “regret” is used a whopping 37.5 times more frequently in corporate tweets. The study filtered out nonapologetic uses of these words.

Corporations have also ramped up the number of apologies over time. In the two-year span covered by the study, the percentage of corporate tweets directed at a single user rose from 42 percent to 59 percent, largely because companies began responding to more complaints on the social network.

But quantity and quality aren’t the same thing. Apologetic social-media messages from brands are often stilted and mealy-mouthed. Companies rarely restate what they’re apologizing for, which Page interpreted as a way to obscure the initial offense, and are likely to stop short of accepting blame. Companies often pointed out someone else who was at fault or used “adverbial constructions” to avoid taking full responsibility, bending their regret into strange sentences. (Incidentally, companies also used apologetic emoticons at one-fifth the rate of individuals, with frowny-faced :( being the most popular choice by far.)

In place of sincerity, companies offered action. While only 10 percent of apologies from individuals included an offer to right the wrong, the study found that 30 percent of corporate apologies did so.

Corporations tend to spend so much time apologizing on social media because that’s where people go to complain. But the rate at which they seem to stir up trouble is also striking, and it’s pretty much because brands don’t know what they’re doing. People who advise companies on social media have a simple solution: just stop tweeting so much. After all, there’s no clear reason that a company making, say, a germ-killing goo needs to share its opinions on sporting events. “There is a perception that there is a daily need to create content to engage consumers, and so it’s created this ecosystem that we’ve created now where brands are outsourcing their social media marketing,” says Jason Kapler of Networked Insights, a company that advises brands on how to use social media. “I’m wondering if it’s not undermining the brand equity they’re building with consumers.”

Joshua March, the founder of Conversocial, which helps companies with social media customer service, says companies who want to be edgy just need to be ready for a bit of blowback. It’s not hard to predict that football fans are going to be irked by gratuitous swipes at their teams. “If you make a joke that way,” he says, “you’re obviously going to get flak.” March often finds that corporate executives get instantly spooked by negative comments on social media and tend to panic.

In an email, Samanatha Williams, a spokesperson for Gojo Industries, Purell’s corporate parent, said its tweet was the result of a “stupid mistake,” and that the company apologized because “the tweet clearly did not reflect who we are, our values and what we believe in.” As a Cleveland Browns fan, I’m willing to accept Purell’s apology even as I am baffled Gojo didn’t just stick to its guns. The company’s headquarters are located less than 45 minutes away from the Browns’ stadium, so its employees are presumably very, very familiar with being surrounded by angry Browns fans. I’d guess the tweet was the work of some disenchanted fan staffing its Twitter feed. Besides, the fact that the Browns are an embarrassment is an objective fact. Everyone from sports website Deadspin to the hosts of public radio’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! has pointed that out. Browns fans seeking apologies for this mess would be best served by starting with the team’s owner.

Updated at 9 am Wednesday with comment from Gojo Industries.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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