Social media websites can be dangerous places for public figures, institutions and businesses, especially when they make mistakes. There’s always somebody on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or on a review site like Yelp or Angie’s List who’s ready to point out problems and mistakes. Depending on your response, you can make the problem worse, damaging customer relationships in the process.
There are plenty of examples of businesses either failing to respond or responding thoughtlessly when confronted with a critical Facebook post, and my sister spurred yet another on New Year’s Eve. Her local newspaper, the York Daily Record, published an article about a band that had been added to a New Year’s Eve celebration and incorrectly used the word “edition” instead of “addition.”
My sister, being a grammar lover and sister of journalist, posted a message to the YDR’s Facebook page pointing out the error and added a bit of snark (sorry, Sis), by writing, “In 2013, perhaps the addition of a grammar expert to your staff should be in order to edit each edition of your newspaper. Happy New Year!” A screenshot of her post, as well as the YDR’s response is over there to the right.
Unfortunately, the York Daily Record’s response on Facebook was essentially “It’s not our fault!” There was a bit of a disconnect, too. My sister was referring to an article on the front page that was bylined by one of the paper’s staff writers. The anonymous response from the YDR either found an advertisement in the paper that contained the same mistake or assumed the mistake appeared in an ad. (I’ve not actually seen the entire newspaper, myself.)
After my sister answered that she had seen the incorrect spelling in an article, not an ad, there was no further comment from the newspaper.
Just about every social media expert will tell you the newspaper’s Facebook administrator dropped the ball on this one. When a customer points out an error or problem in public — like on Facebook — it calls for a response that is gracious and humorous, if possible. For example, the York Daily Record might have responded by thanking my sister for pointing out the error and by mentioning that it was fixed in the online version of the article (it was). It might have joked that the newspaper has a grammar expert, but that person had a bit too much egg nog over the holiday and just missed that one.
There’s no reason not to be thankful. My sister cared enough about what was in her newspaper to take time and write a note. Everybody makes mistakes, and this was a relatively harmless one, so why not have a sense of humor about it?
My purpose in writing about this, however, is not to deliver a lesson on how to use social media. Many businesses have trouble dealing with social media criticism, but this case is especially instructive about newspapers and their editors. I worked in the newspaper industry for 30 years, and I can tell you that most editors and writers hate mistakes. I can also tell you that the thing they hate more than making mistakes is having mistakes pointed out to them.
There are some reasons for that. When it comes to spelling and grammar, for example, newspaper folk view themselves — with good reason — as defenders of the language. Not only that, by the nature of their business, journalists often write about the mistakes, errors, foibles and missteps of others. Stones thrown back at newspapers expose the glass house. Editors don’t enjoy that.
When I got my first reporting job back in 1978, there were some newspapers that declined to run corrections when they made mistakes. Most others buried corrections on a page that was often overlooked, and rarely was a correction given the prominence of the original error. The institutional attitude about errors — don’t make them, and hide it when you do — is one of things that has hurt the industry’s credibility and contributed to its decline. The York Daily Record’s Facebook response was yet another manifestation of that attitude, albeit a small one.
The Internet age demands transparency and even rewards it. What does transparency mean? It means acknowledging mistakes. It means identifying sources and relationships when relevant. It means acknowledging the relationship you have with your consumer, or reader, in this case. It means inviting and accepting reader participation, even when it’s criticism.
The attitude of infallibility (“We didn’t make that mistake. Somebody else did.”) is a giant liability for newspapers in the Internet age.
Even more disappointing with the York Daily Record example is that fact that the newspaper, owned by MediaNews Group, is operated by Digital First, whose CEO, John Paton, is the newspaper’s loudest advocate for pushing the industry into the Internet age. It’s one thing to advocate using digital platforms to tell news stories, but apparently it’s something else entirely to change the attitudes that have led the industry to sink in Internet quicksand.
When I see something like the York Daily Record’s lame response to my sister’s Facebook comment, I see more than just one simple social media conversation gone bad. I see yet another example of why an industry is failing.