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Blunders : Twitter, tragic events and the price of social media stupidity

A dress shop committed an act of unfathomable stupidity today when it tweeted that references to “Aurora,” site of the horrific theatre massacre in Colorado, were “clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress.”

The insensitive tweet, which wasn’t the only one of the day, has triggered a rightful cascade of contempt that could stain the company. At the same time, the fallout from the tweet shows how social media is changing the nature of crisis communications.

The company at the center of the storm is Celeb Boutique, a U.K. outfit that sells celebrity-inspired fashion online. Its nightmare began when its Twitter account published this:

The tweet, which remained up for more than an hour, went viral via the Huffington Post and others. News and fashion sites began reviling Celeb Boutiques as did, needless to say, other Twitter users:

Incredibly, Celeb Boutiques exacerbated the situation by explaining that “Our PR is NOT US based and had not checked the reason for the trend” and then followed up its half-hearted apology with:

The company has now removed the light-hearted “fabulous friday” tweet and its Twitter account appears to have fallen into a stunned silence after issuing a longer four-part apology.

The incident has proved remarkable not only for the depth of the Celeb Boutique’s idiocy but for the virulent and mob-like response it has invoked. As of Friday afternoon, Twitter is alight with thousands of people calling the company vile names and demanding that it pay money to a victim’s fund.

A similar drama is unfolding around a Twitter account associated with the National Rifle Association which published: ”Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” The NRA claims that the tweet, which has since been removed, was published by an individual who was not yet aware of the events in Colorado. Even though the NRA tweet appears to have been a case of bad timing more than anything else, it has still generated a wave of angry responses.

In the bigger picture, today’s tweets demonstrate two things. The first is simply a reminder that the media and public are hyper-attuned to appearances of callousness at a time of tragedy. Recall the photos of President Bush flying over Hurricane Katrina. The issue was not that the President didn’t care — it was that he appeared not to care. The situation was much the same with today’s tweeters who were almost certainly ignorant or unlucky rather than callous and bad. The insults raining down on them represent an urge to vent over the senselessness of the Colorado shootings as much as they do anger at the NRA or Celeb Boutique.

While public anger at a time of tragedy is not new, the speed at which it is expressed is new. Social media means not just that a company like Celeb Boutique can damage its brand more quickly and broadly than ever before, but that it has far less time to undo that damage. In the past, a company could detect a bad news story early on and work with professionals to spin the story. In the case of Celeb Boutique, its chance to fix the damage has already come and gone.

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