How the Red Cross averted a social media disaster

The American Red Cross took a bad tweet and turned it into a positive experience by responding quickly and staying transparent.

One night earlier this year, Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross, awoke to the phone ringing in her Washington. D.C.-area home. A colleague from Chicago was calling, and when Harman answered the phone, the colleague asked, “Are you on top of the slizzered thing?”

Harman had no idea what slizzered meant. But she was about to become very familiar with the term as she stepped into a crisis that would seriously test the organization’s social media strategy.

Earlier that evening, Gloria Huang, a member of Harman’s social media team, inadvertently sent a Twitter message on behalf of the organization to the entire Red Cross community of internal employees and external supporters -- about 250,000 strong -- that said, “Ryan found two more four packs of Dogfish Heads Midas Touch Beer… when we drink, we do it right. #gettngslizzerd.”

Huang was using HootSuite, a social media dashboard that can dispatch a message to multiple channels, and sent from her iPhone what was intended to be a private message out onto her Red Cross professional channel.

According to the online Urban Dictionary, slizzered is “the state of being really drunk.” Harman had a really big problem on her hands.

As Harman talked to her Chicago colleague, she realized her Blackberry was displaying dozens of texts and emails. They contained slurs about the Red Cross being drunk and well as serious expressions of concern.

Managing social media requires immediate responses
But within 24 hours, the Red Cross not only avoided tarnishing its reputation but turned that tweet into a positive event that actually contributed to a boost in donations.

There are two key reasons the Red Cross pulled it off, Harman said. First, the organization believes it does not control the social conversation.  If it had tried to force an end to the controversy by refusing to comment, it would have created a much bigger mess, she said. Second, the social media group operates independently and is trusted to make sound decisions. So Harman was able to quickly and directly respond without having to waste time seeking approval from executives.

Harman said she did the following to help turn the incident around:

  • Acted immediately.
  • Owned up to it.
  • Used humor and offered a genuine response.
  • Continues to engage supporters and detractors as they responded to the incident.

But immediately following the now famous tweet, Harman deleted it. She then second-guessed that action and contacted her colleague from Chicago to discuss it.

“I thought I shouldn’t have done that, because all the companies who do and act stuffy only fuel the fire and delight the social crowds,” Harman said. “I am a casual fan of the mis-tweet. It’s a glimpse into the humanity of corporations.”

“But I was stressed because there were hundreds of tweets” about getting slizzered, she added.

It took Harman and her colleague about an hour and 20 minutes to consider different types of responses. They decided to go with a straightforward acknowledgement with a touch of humor.

Their response was “We’ve deleted the rogue Tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”

Huang, who at this point was not yet aware of what had occurred, now looks back on her boss’s initial response and applauds it. “It was essentially a gut reaction,” Huang said. “It is so instantaneous; you can’t spend too long on a decision. You have to go with it and be as transparent as you can. The response comes from having known our community.”

The Red Cross community reacts
Within hours, the Red Cross received hundreds of supportive tweets. Some approved of its humble and humorous response; others said the tweet helped them decide to donate to the organization.

By the next morning, “I was really nervous to come to work,” Harman said. “I have seen people get fired for this kind of thing. I did sit in the parking lot for a minute before I went in. Our CMO [chief marketing officer] got in touch with me by 6 a.m. and all she said was ‘Thanks!’ And that’s all we’ve ever talked about it.”

Meanwhile, Huang was on her way to work as well. “I didn’t find out until the next morning,” she said. “I freaked out at first. I was tweeting on my way into work to find out what was going on.”

Harman and Huang worked together in the aftermath to respond to inquiries about the incident. They blogged about it on the American Red Cross blog site and consider it a powerful lesson learned.

Dogfish Head, the brewer of the beer of which Huang tweeted, did a Red Cross donation drive on its site.

The Red Cross did receive a bump in donations that week. Harman said that because the tweet was unplanned, there was no measurement applied to it, so it is impossible to determine exactly how many new donations it spurred.  

Harman and Huang’s relationship is in good shape, and Harman notes that the incident it was “a very human mistake.”

“When a mistake happens, it can be good,” Harman added. “You learn something, you have an opportunity to correct something and collaborate, and that’s what it’s all about.”

“I think it is fair to say we are experiencing a complete cultural shift in how business is done, and it is stripping the divide in our personal and professional lives,” Harman concluded.  

Maybe so, but Huang removed the Red Cross account from HootSuite and now uses the social dashboard strictly for personal communications.

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