Interview with Bernhard Warner, co-author of #Fail

Above: Hilarity and awesomeness

Above: Hilarity and awesomeness

One of my favorite books is #Fail: The 50 Greatest Social Media Screw-Ups and How to Avoid Being the Next One.  It has, without a doubt, been a big inspiration to me, particularly as far as this blog is concerned.  The book was written by Bernhard Warner and Matthew Yeomans and features fifty amazing instances of brands and businesses utterly botching Social Media.  Not only is the book hilarious, but it also has some great lessons for anyone who aspires to use Social Media.  If you are interested in Social Media, or just want a laugh, this book is a must read.

Bernhard Warner was kind enough to do an interview for the blog via Email.  The questions and answers are below.  I am truly thankful to Bernhard for doing this interview – there is some great information in here from one of the leading experts on Social Media and #Fails.  Enjoy!

First, what inspired you to write #Fail:
#Fail was a project that my long-time collaborator and former business partner, Matthew Yeomans and I arrived at in the autumn of 2011. We had been following the social media sector closely since its inception, first as journalists for various publications (I am a former Reuters correspondent, and later wrote for Slate.com and Bloomberg Businessweeks), then later as consultants and media trainers and, more recently, as social media crisis-comms strategists/trainers. When I do training courses for executives a common question I get is: tell us more about best- and worst-case examples of where companies really got it wrong? So, the research process was born more or less over a series of brainstorming sessions between me and my co-author to pick out the mishaps that have shaped both good- and bad-practice in the area of corporate communications, marketing and customer service (the big areas we cover in the book).

Since the publication of #Fail in 2012what’s the biggest Social Media screw-up that you have seen?  
 
What is disappointing is that brands continue to make the same dumb mistakes as many of those we chronicle in the book. Part of the reason for the book was to highlight how corporate communications pros could learn from the mistakes of others. Not so. One repeat comes to mind is Gap using the Hurricane Sandy hashtag to get in a plug about shopping on Gap.com. They were rightly slammed by the Twittersphere. This is pretty much precisely what Kenneth Cole did during the Egypt uprising the year before in Tahir Square. Another one that sticks out is Asiana Airlines in July of this year. Following the fatal crash at SFO, the company went silent on Twitter (except for RTing an unrelated Tweet) while condolences came in from around the world, even the White House. Oftentimes, social media gives the public a revealing look at a company’s true culture.

Any plans on doing a new version of the book?

I get asked this a lot. I continue to compile examples — so, there’s plenty of material. It’s not something I have planned for 2014, but seeing as it comes up so frequently in my training sessions and in my consulting gigs, perhaps I should push it forward. Something to ponder for the New Year, I guess.
 
When it comes to politicians, do you think that we are any more or less prone to screwing up on Social Media?  Why?

Politics is a people business. And it’s a business of extreme positions. So, you’re often going to get a big brush-back from some corner of the public when somebody pushes a side that’s not popular with their camp. That said, the true fails most frequently come when a company or politician or some public figure is disingenuous. The public of course not only expects transparency and honesty, it demands it. That’s the great social change that social media and these technologies exert on society. We can now hold more accountable the brands and politicos in our lives. This doesn’t sit well with old-school thinking. I suspect it will take a generation or so before the old dinosaurs are pushed from office, and a younger, more digital/social/communications savvy generation assume their seats.The digital movement is all about collaboration and weighing public sentiment data to plot future initiatives and investments. This approach could some day even make its way to the halls of Capitol building.
 
What company do you think does Social Media exceptionally well – and what’s their secret?

I don’t want to single out any one in particular, but I am impressed with how quickly the telecoms industry has transformed their culture to be more responsive and helpful. They used to be dreadful. But their investment and commitment to social customer service has really improved their standing with the public, as many surveys now show.
 
One of the biggest criticisms of Social Media, at least for elected officials, is that it leaves us open to be criticized.  What is your response for elected officials who believe this to be the case?

Criticism is good if it informs our decisions and policy-making. This doesn’t mean caving to public opinion. That would not be constructive. But taking a full accounting of all available data — and yes, I consider criticism “data”– helps us calibrate our thinking. Politicians should view this from that lens. It’s like the old Ed Koch line — how am I doing? Social tells elected officials exactly how they are performing at a given point in time. That’s pretty helpful in my estimation.
 

In your book, you’ve got some pretty spectacular screw-ups that cost major companies millions in revenue.  Any one in particular that you would call your favorite?

No true favorite. I do often get asked about the Nestle-Greenpeace spat that has now become a topic discussed at business schools across the country. In that instance, Nestle’s Facebook page was taken over by eco-activists after the brand decided to pick a fight with them. It was ugly, and it led to big changes on the corporate side for Nestle. It also transformed the company culture. When I speak to companies they often want to hear if that was a one-off, or if it could happen again. Yes, I tell them, it could happen again. Gulp.

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