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Etiquette at work

When using humor in a message, tread carefully

I did a webinar recently that included advice on whether electronic communications are public or private. When you are writing something that you intend to be private, you should review it carefully to determine whether it would be problematic if it was seen by anyone other than the intended recipient.

But what happens when you intend your message to be public? It can still be problematic, especially if you try to use humor.

CNNMoney online has an article identifying six social media screw-ups in the business world. Two examples stood out because they make a harsh point about what happens when humor backfires.


The first example comes courtesy of footwear and apparel company founder Kenneth Cole. He was launching a new product line and wanted to tweet about it. Cole often tweets on the company’s Twitter account, and signs his tweets with his initials. Unfortunately, he made a joke out of a situation that few see as funny: “Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online . . . -KC.” Within two hours Cole had issued an apology, but the damage was done. His readers had already started a hashtag for a boycott.

The other tweet cited in the CNNMoney article involved a representative at New Media Strategies, a social media agency, who tweeted from his client Chrysler's account. The tweet was doubly problematic because it followed on the heels of Chrysler's “Imported from Detroit” ad campaign.

The rep posted: “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to [expletive deleted] drive.” Chrysler did the right thing by going into damage control mode and quickly issued an apology. New Media Strategies lost the client. And the rep lost his job.

In both cases, humor failed. What was perceived as funny by the person doing the writing was anything but funny to the Twitter public. Perspective matters. And in the online world, the perspective of the “public” really matters. When a mistake is made, that public is quick and ruthless in pointing it out.


Humor can be a great tool. But when it backfires, when people perceive the message differently than the writer, it no longer matters what the writer intended to convey.

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