The Hitler teapot, or how not to respond to a social media PR crisis

June 1, 2013

By: Justin

JC Penney (JCP) found itself in a bit of hot water last week when a user on the social news website Reddit uploaded a photo of the brand's latest teapot design, calling into question its eerie similarity to Adolf Hitler. Before you could say “wienerschnitzel,” the floodgates were open and JCP execs had a viral mess on their hands. They quickly took to Twitter to set the record straight. But instead, they opted to reply directly to each person tweeting about the ill-designed teapot, never once making an official statement.

Now, with any PR crisis, it's important to act fast before it gets worse. But don't let the speed of the response get in the way of creating a thoughtful one.

What's scary for a brand facing an unwanted viral phenomenon is the lack of control. The desperation to seize control back can sometimes lead to further headaches. Case in point: reporters and bloggers talking about how you mishandled a crisis via social media rather than fixed it. JCP should have taken more time to think through its strategy on this one, as this is exactly the kind of short attention span distraction that makes a huge splash, but leaves few waves. Does anybody out there actually think JCP intended to design its teapot to look like everyone's least favorite 1930s dictator? Of course not.

This is not to say that the company should have remained silent. Surely, when your brand is thrust into the spotlight, good or bad, it deserves acknowledgement. And when social media meltdowns are commanding more real estate in the news cycle (see: Amy's Baking Company), people are tuning in to see how companies respond. What you don't want people to see on your brand's Twitter page is a long list of replies that all say pretty much the same thing. (Deleting them afterward doesn't look good either, since Twitter is ripe for screenshots.) There is a time and a place for that kind of a personal touch, but a response to a viral photo is not one of them.

Instead, JCP could have made a simple, re-tweetable statement apologizing for the unintentional controversy and offering a solution. But don't expect the company to take the item off the shelves any time soon. According to a tweet reply to actor Patton Oswalt, the teapots have already sold out online.

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