The day after the first presidential debate, it wasn’t Barack Obama or Mitt Romney getting the most attention. It was the maker of colorful kitchen appliances.
KitchenAid spent much of Thursday trying to repair the damage from a wayward tweet about President Obama that whipped up social media outrage faster than one of its signature blenders can spit out a smoothie.
The tweet, put out by a member of the company’s social media team during the Obama-Romney faceoff Wednesday in Denver, attacked the president in a particularly personal way.
As Obama reminisced about his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died shortly before Obama was elected president in 2008, the tweet appeared on KitchenAid’s official Twitter account, @KitchenAidUSA: “Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president!”
The outrage was almost immediate, with angry Twitter users threatening to boycott the Benton Harbor, Mich., company.
The appliance maker, which is owned by Whirlpool Corp., quickly deleted the tweet. Cynthia Soledad, a KitchenAid marketing executive, issued a series of apologies via Twitter and Facebook.
“I would like to personally apologize to President @BarackObama, his family and everyone on Twitter for the offensive tweet sent earlier,” she wrote. “It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won’t be tweeting for us anymore.”
Soledad said in a separate statement that the employee meant to post the tweet on a personal account but mistakenly sent it instead through the corporate account. She referred to the tweet as a “tasteless joke.”
The PR disaster shows the risks that companies take in using social media to leverage their brands. With 140 million active users worldwide, Twitter has been an especially popular site for corporations looking to advertise new products or tout discounts, particularly during big events such as the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl.
But in contrast to traditional advertising, the medium is fast-moving — and unforgiving. The click of a button can send the wrong message to millions. There were about 10 million debate-related tweets issued during Wednesday’s presidential showdown.
“Corporate America is completely wrestling with how to control all of their social media presences,” said Eric Yaverbaum, associate publisher of four social media magazines. “The lesson is, don’t give the keys to your Twitter account to a kid.”
KitchenAid isn’t the first company to commit a high-profile social media gaffe.
After a gunman rampaged through a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July, leaving a dozen people dead, online retailer CelebBoutique tweeted that its Kim Kardashian-inspired Aurora dress was behind the term’s popularity on Twitter.
"#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired dress ;)” said the tweet, which included a link to the product page for the $157 garment.
Twitter users quickly condemned the callous statement. CelebBoutique blamed the gaffe on its public relations team, which it said was based outside the U.S. and therefore unaware of the tragedy.
When Arab Spring protests were raging in the Middle East in 2011, fashion designer Kenneth Cole posted on Twitter: “Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”
In a contrite follow-up, Cole wrote that his “attempt at humor” was “insensitive” and “poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate.”
To prevent such debacles, many brands, including Target Corp. and Taco Bell, have hired social media directors to manage the accounts and to put guidelines in place.
At Target, all team members with access to the retailer’s social media accounts receive media training and are encouraged to use good judgment when writing company-backed posts. The discount chain also advises “double checking, triple checking that you’re using the right account to share messages,” said Target social media spokesman Joe Curry.
“I think with social media, you’re always adjusting and adapting,” he said. “Certainly when we use social media, there could be potential risks, but sometimes the risks are worth taking to be part of the conversation.”
Investors didn’t seem too concerned about the KitchenAid controversy. Whirlpool’s stock rose 8 cents, or less than 1%, to $85 on Thursday.
Still, many customers pledged via Twitter to boycott the brand.
“I have several KitchenAid and Whirlpool appliances,” wrote Lue Roberts, one of more than 1,600 people who commented on the company’s statement on Facebook. “I will not purchase anything from either in the future. In fact, I will sell or give away those that I have!”
To its credit, KitchenAid apologized and explained itself swiftly, which lessened some of the damage, said David Gerzof Richard, a social media and marketing professor at Emerson College in Boston and founder of communications firm Bigfish.
“In a crisis situation like this, it could take 70 years to build a brand and one tweet to tear it down,” he said. “They did as good of a job handling the situation as they could.”
Brands are also taking action internally. Posting off-color remarks on social media sites is the easiest way to get fired, according to human resources software maker TribeHR.
More than 4 in 10 companies worldwide said they disciplined employees over social media misuse last year, up from 24% in 2009, the report said.
Apparel and accessories retailer Francesca fired its chief financial officer, Gene Morphis, in May, saying in a statement that “he improperly communicated company information through social media.” The retailer wouldn’t say what information Morphis had divulged or through what site.
Despite the widespread backlash over KitchenAid’s tweet, analysts said the situation is bound to repeat itself for many more brands.
“This is not that uncommon of a mistake,” said Alan Webber, a social risk management analyst at Altimeter Group. “Obviously you can’t take back what you said, but you can say we’re sorry and you can say this is what we’re doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”