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How to Damage your Brand in One Easy Step

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Things on the internet should be getting back to normal now, after America wakes up and usual blogging and updating activities resume. Welcome back, USA! While it’s easy enough to find somebody grumbling about someting most days of the week, one place I can guarantee you can find it is at Jezebel. Hop on over and visit sometime later today (depending on your time zone). If there isn’t a post addressing yesterday’s brouhaha, all you need to do is to look at the comments in #groupthink.

Allow me to explain: Jezebel is part of the Gawker empire. It is the “ladyblog,” with the tagline “Celebrity, sex, fashion for women.” It also has a feminist bent, and has hosted guest blogs and syndicated content from other feminist bloggers and websites, in addition to its own content. It is considered to be a “safe space,” where the predominantly female readership can relax and not have to worry about any sexist or misogynist content turning up and raising their hackles.

Deadspin is the Gawker property that concerns itself with sports. A while ago, one of the Jezebel editors was a guest editor at Deadspin over a weekend. This did not go well, with the sports fans who make up the Deadspin constituency not appreciating their new editor’s lack of in-depth knowledge. Yesterday, in a what was either a foreign exchange or lost bet, a Deadspin editor was left in charge of Jezebel while the regular editors took a break. I won’t go into detail about what happened next; let’s just say that there was name-calling on both sides, a demand for a hand-job and consecutive posts of male genitalia. Formal letters of complaint to the regular editors were written.

Now, Gawker blogs are not about making people feel good about themselves. They are not therapy. There is a high premium placed on snark and witty comments, no matter how inappropriate they would be in polite company. In general, all of the blogs under the Gawker umbrella are fun. But because Jezebel regularly posts serious pieces that are of concern to feminists, many of its readers have come to consider it to be a feminist arena, despite the marked refusal of the management to label it is as such publicly. Leaving a mischievous “super-alpha-hetero” man in charge is asking for trouble, even if it is just for one day.

Today, many Jezebel readers might wake up and carry on visiting as normal, happy that the guest editorship was a one-off thing. Others will voice their annoyance and may disappear for a while but will ultimately return because the site is their favourite online community and they won’t be able to keep away for long. But some will take their browsing elsewhere. For them, their safe space has been violated, ridiculed, and (temporarily, granted) abandoned to those who wish it harm. They will not return because they can no longer be sure that another incursion will not happen again, that they will not click a link on their favourite site and be greeted by something that is designed to insult them.

This is how you can lose customers. What seems like a light-hearted attempt at providing something different may be taken as an abandonment of the values and philosophy you have previously espoused. If business is about giving people what they want, this is a sure-fire way of alienating those who are unfamiliar enough with you to take you seriously. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, as the saying goes, and a bad first impression does not usually lead to a purchase.

The lesson from this? Be careful. Be careful about who you allow to manage your company’s blog, or Twitter feed, or any other form of social media. Be careful about the tone of your press releases and publicity material. Be careful about how you might come across, especially if you have already built a reputation. Give your employees strict guidelines as to how they interact with customers. Especially online! On the internet, you never know who you are talking to.

Gawker is not going to go out of business. If the blog conglomerate were a bank, it would be “too big to fail.” Nevertheless, I am confident that Jezebel has lost some readers today. They will have already been uncomfortable with the way things were going, but the events of yesterday will have provided the excuse they needed to make the break. The glory of the internet and of business in general is that there is usually an alternative. So before you offer naked photocopying, or racist corporate gifts, just remember that not everyone shares your sense of humour. Losing a contract because you didn’t have the best quote is one thing; losing it because you didn’t think anyone would notice or object to bigotry is another thing entirely.

[Image from the Jezebel Twitter feed]

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