The Schadenfreude of Social Media

What to do when the mob turns on you.

"Schadenfreude" is a German word for taking pleasure in others' misfortune. And while most of us would probably discreetly admit to indulging in this from time to time, marketers have to be prepared should someone decide it's their company's turn in the misery arena.

Because with the advent of social media, it's easier than ever to gloat over someone else's downfall--and get lots of other people to join in.

Back in August, in our post "Unsocial Media," we cited the example of the public relations agency who was raked over the coals by editors and other agencies for a dumb, but likely honest, mistake--putting e-mail addresses in the cc box of an e-mail rather than the bcc box where they would remain invisible. Instead of a couple of hundred indignant reporters, thousands in the blogosphere we reading and commenting on how the agency should be shut down for gross incompetence.

Seems a bit extreme for something not smart, but certainly not criminal or malicious. Yet that's what can happen if Schadenfreude takes over and a topic gets viral. And the detachment of online communications often leads people to say things they would never say directly to someone. Screen names (and other people expressing similar views) remove inhibitions (and in many cases, manners.)

We've seen other instances, too, where small (but unusual) stories have taken off. Take the case of the woman in Chicago who twittered some negative things about her landlord, only to find herself sued. Thousand of people came to her defense online, especially after the property management firm said it was their policy to sue first and ask questions later.

Or the case of the pizza parlor owner who dissed his former ad agency on Facebook and got slapped with a $2 million defamation lawsuit. (The story was the most-read topic on the local newspaper's website for three days, with no positive comments toward the agency but numeous individuals writing to say that the pizza place had helped a charity or contributed to a school).

In both the latter instances, sentiment took the sides of the people being sued--in a big way. And we wonder how much business the plaintiffs ultimately stand to lose through the negative publicity that still lingers from these situations.

These examples demonstrate just how quickly things can take off--and get out of hand. If you're in business, you have to assume that at some point you'll have someone who's not happy with you. And when they're not happy, they can take their greviances to lots of people very quickly through social media outlets.

What do you do when you're faced with this situation? Here are some basics:

1. Determine if the complaint is legitimate. This may not matter if Schadenfreude takes over, but it might give you a way to deal with false perceptions after the emotion dies down.

2. Try to resolve it with the complainer. Many stories escalate because the company ignores the complaint and doesn't attempt a resolution. In today's instant communications world, that's like admitting guilt. Some companies, like Comcast and Whole Foods, have turned to monitoring social media as an extension of their customer service, reaching out to people who complain and trying to solve problems even if the company isn't contacted directly. This has resulted in increased positive perceptions for both companies.

3. Don't overreact. If someone complains and you come back with a lawsuit, especially one with big numbers, expect strong response. It's the American way, because A.) we root for the underdog and B.) we perceive that freedom of speech on the internet is a natural extension of our rights.

4. If the story goes viral, be prepared to ride it out. Pepsi is dealing with furor over an iPhone app for its AMP energy drink that started this past week, with Ad Age and lots of other sources jumping on. When something gets this hot, even a logical solution may not extinguish the flames. But while the story may take off fast, it will probably dissipate just as quickly. Because people who send viral stories to each other are reluctant to forward things that they believe people have already seen.

5. Be able to respond if the story comes up later. In electronic media, a story doesn't go away completely, and a search might pull it up later. Make sure that if it resurfaces, you can address it one on one with whoever brings it up.

To learn more about dealing with the public relations aspects of new media, call us at 865.330.0033 or click here.


  1. Anonymous says

    Maybe Wall Street should be reading this.