Sunday, November 15, 2015

#Jeb4Prez and the Risks of Promoting Fans in Social Media

It seemed like a golden "can't miss" opportunity for the Jeb Bush social media team, looking to aid the candidate running a distant fifth in recent polls. Vic Berger IV posted a Vine video about Bush, tagged Bush's official Twitter account and promised to get a giant "Jeb4Prez" neck tattoo if the video received a million views.

The Bush campaign was only too happy to assist, tweeting their support. As you'd expect, the milestone was reached and a giant neck tattoo ensued, helpfully posted to Twitter.

Soon after, however, Berger's father took to Twitter to criticize the Bush campaign for encouraging his son. Dad's tweets reported his son lost his job as a result of the stunt and suffers from "undiagnosed issues." The father told Bush he was "saddened that you and your staff encouraged him."

As the Bush social media team got quiet, the media picked up on the situation, publishing articles on MotherJones, HuffPo and many other news outlets.

The Bush campaign got what it wanted--a viral sensation--but not exactly in the manner they had hoped. It now turns out the whole thing was a prank from the start, and it demonstrates (once again) how easy it is for overly-zealous social media teams to stumble. The #Jeb4Prez tattoo story is a minor embarrassment and distraction rather than the Bush campaigns' hoped-for "Yes We Can" social media moment.

There are many things the Bush social media team might have done to avoid this situation. The lessons here for brands and other campaigns include:

  • Be Objective. The initial Vine video hardly portrayed Bush in a complimentary light, which should have been the first clue to an unbiased observer.
  • Be Skeptical Of Outrageous Offers: The second clue was the ridiculousness of a person getting a giant visible tattoo to support a 2016 campaign. Whether Bush wins or loses, this sort of conspicuous tattoo would have become even more dated and embarrassing than that Nickelback tatt your roommate thought was a great idea back in 2005.
  • Do Your Homework: In addition to approaching the situation with some skepticism, the Bush campaign also made the mistake of leaping before doing any research. With a bit of legwork, the social media team would have learned Berger works as an editor on videos with Tim Heidecker, a comedian who costars on an Adult Swim program. That fact would have raised immediate suspicion.
  • Reach Out Privately: While not necessary every time a brand or candidate social media team wishes to retweet an advocate, it never hurts to contact people privately before doing so. This not only ensures the person wants the attention, it also helps to evaluate the seriousness of the individual's intent. Rather than reach out privately to assess Berger and his claim, the Bush campaign was only too happy to facilitate the viral rise of Berger's video, and now it faces the consequences. Even Berger is perplexed, noting "I was surprised there wasn't more research done... It's a little frightening."
  • Stick To Your Strategy! The campaign's biggest mistake was not over-eagerness and lack of care; it was that this situation had no chance of giving the candidate what he needs, even had the offer been true. Unlike the "Yes We Can" video, which highlighted Obama's inspiring words, all this situation was going to do was promote how one person could make a life mistake in order to support Bush's nomination. For a campaign whose candidate is already a household name but whose appeal is lagging, the neck tattoo was an unnecessary diversion that prioritized social media scale above promotion of the candidate himself. The campaign urgently needs more people to know the candidate and his policies, and the neck tattoo stunt was never going to deliver on that, making this entire episode a strategic misfire from the start. 

The lessons are pretty evident, not just for presidential campaigns but for marketers, as well. It is an easy trap to get so focused on your own needs that you see only the opportunities but not the risks in promoting fans (or those who only appear to be fans). Of course, as the reach of brands on social media declines, this sort of one-to-one engagement becomes ever more powerful, but with great power comes great responsibility.

We have seen too many brand hoaxes and mistakes to think that jumping on bandwagons and retweeting fans is a good idea without a healthy dose of caution. A previously unknown social media profile making an offer that is too good to be true will often be too good to be true. Brands' and candidates' social teams should not ignore these opportunities, but neither can they act without caution and due diligence.

The Bush campaign will not be derailed by this silly little incident, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it entirely. The Bush team needs the conversation to be about the merits of the candidate and not the missteps of his social media team. By focusing on the real needs of its candidate, elevating Bush's ideas, allowing fans to share why they support the candidate and demonstrating reasonable caution, the Bush campaign could have avoided this PR blunder. That's an important lesson for any brand and candidate hoping to gain an advantage via social media.

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