Andrew Touhy, Account Executive

Screen-Shot-2016-04-20-at-14-49-20The wildly popular picture and video messaging application, Snapchat, found itself on the defensive for releasing a marketing stunt that superimposed musician Bob Marley’s face on a user on the unofficial recreational marijuana holiday, April 20. The company’s statement in response to public feedback, however, added fuel to the fire instead of quelling criticism.

The company released a statement to Verge Magazine that rationalizes the filter decision as a way to celebrate Marley’s music and legacy:

 “The lens we launched today was created in partnership with the Bob Marley Estate, and gives people a new way to share their appreciation for Bob Marley and his music. Millions of Snapchatters have enjoyed Bob Marley’s music, and we respect his life and achievements.”

The company’s defense of itself did nothing to connect with users who were upset, and instead defended its decision making process. Rather than empathize, they explained, and worse, no apology was offered.

If you were at a cocktail party, for example, and said something unintentionally offensive, common social norms tell us to apologize to the party, admit our faults, and move forward.

The general consensus is that the move was not only a tone-deaf marketing stunt, but also reduced Marley’s legacy to a stereotype.  The consent of the estate, while important, did not validate that all fans would feel the same or that all users would appreciate the social media service’s endorsement of the drug ‘holiday.’

Additionally, many users found the filter to be racially insensitive for how it changed users skin color. Not responding to this portion of the criticism was tone-deaf to societal issues.

If it was indeed a genuine effort to honor Bob Marley, they missed the mark because people weren’t buying it. There is an important lesson in crisis management to be learned in this controversy, and that is your decision making must have a clearly defined strategy with a goal in mind.

My colleague Steve Hamilton recently wrote about the importance of having a personality in your communications, and also profiled attempts at humor that went awry. It’s not wrong to try new things, but a company must be prepared to react.

The social media frenzy surrounding Snapchat’s decision demonstrates that the company made a shortsighted decision that did not anticipate pushback and outrage.

The best crisis management is to avoid one altogether. Through proper preparation, analysis of the environment, and anticipating the potential pushback, Snapchat could have avoided currently being the subject of a public and media firestorm.