Why Brands Should Think and Act More Like Humans

Harvard Business Review just put out an interesting case study called When the Twitterverse Turns on You.

It’s about a Canadian airliner that conducts a Twitter contest, on the advice of their PR agency, that goes terribly wrong. The twitterverse starts using the contest’s hashtag to bash the company, hurl customer service complaints, and rehash recent PR nightmares the company is still trying to recover from.

The case study details the discussion between the CEO, PR Head, Social Media Director, and PR firm on how to react to the negative tweets the contest is generating.

In the end, they put the onus on the PR Head to make a decision: Should we cancel the contest?

I’m no PR guru, but this one seems straightforward to me. The short answer is no. They shouldn’t cancel the contest.

But I know why the answer is straightforward to me, yet very complicated for the business leaders featured in the case.

I think like a human. They think like brands.

Humans have a social code. We have expectations on how we should be treated and how we should treat others. To be a functioning member of society, we know we’re supposed to act a certain way.

Thanking another human for holding the door open for you. Giving the human in the car behind you a wave when they let you merge into their lane. Not cutting in line in front of another human at the grocery store. These are the building blocks of basic human courtesy.

But brands think those rules don’t apply to them. In fact, they developed a separate set of rules to live by — different from the rules that govern the human population. They call it Public Relations.

Their rules worked perfectly in an era of mass-production, advertising, and economies of scale. And it’s only recently, through the transparency of social media, that their rules are being called into question.

The irony is that brands are managed by humans. You’d think their natural human inclinations, or at least the very soft skills that got them their jobs, would inform how they manage their brands.

But more often than not, they make decisions based on inhuman criteria devoid of consideration for how other humans (i.e. their customers) will react. And then they panic when the humans get upset about it.

To cancel the twitter contest is the human equivalent of giving everyone the middle finger. It’s flipping the bird to both the human who criticized you, even if justifiably, and the human who tried to engage in a positive conversation with you.

It’s to say we’re only interested in a conversation if it’s flattering. But if you’re going to have the audacity to tell us what you really think, this conversation is over — for everyone.

No one wants to engage with a human, or a brand, who carries that kind of attitude.

Brands may think the rules are different. But the rest of us will judge according to the same human criteria.