Memes, those amusing combinations of images and text, can be a wholesome communications tool. They can also a public relations headache. When a company finds itself in a PR crisis, sarcastic memes usually follow. Some memes are clever and humorous. It’s doubtful companies suffering the brunt of sarcasm consider them funny.
Social media enthusiasts have used memes to ridicule companies as well as celebrities and politicians for years. More people now post memes on social media to mock companies and complain about inferior products, poor customer service or other bad experiences. The growing use of social media and spread of tools that help create memes may account for the increase.
Marketers like to create brand memes because they can attract attention and are highly shareable. Memes that attack brands during a PR crisis are also highly shareable. They can go viral and spread much faster than any corporate message.
The Social Media Listening Solution
That’s why sardonic memes require swift PR responses. Experts advise brands to monitor social media as well as message boards for brand mentions. They recommend responding to the individual who posted the meme directly and personably.
“When you reach out on a one-to-one level, it’s amazing how frequently you can resolve that situation positively,” David Pachter, a co-founder of social media marketing firm JumpCrew, told The New York Times. “But if you let it go, it just breeds like a virus.”
Sometimes memes prompt brands to respond publically. After a Tesla Model S electric car burst into flames, a meme circulated that showed a young couple holding each other outside the burning car. The caption read: “Keep warm on a cold night.”
Public Response to Memes
In a company blog post, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the car had struck a large metal object that had fallen from a tractor-trailer. “Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse,” Musk wrote. Statistics show that drivers are five times more likely to experience a fire in conventional gas-powered car than a Tesla.
Memes were just one of Samsung’s problems when its Galaxy Note 7 phones were catching fire. One meme showed a bomb-defusing expert in full military gear plugging in his Samsung phone, with the caption “How to safely charge your Galaxy Note 7.”
Samsung recalled the phone and started from scratch. It rolled out its #DoWhatYouCant video about how an ostrich flies with the help of a Samsung VR headset and phone.
Fighting Memes with Memes
“They’ve packaged a brilliant ad with an inspirational message,” Monica G. Sakala, founder of SOMA Strategies, told the Times. “They’re successfully changing the story away from the fire memes and disaster of the last phone.”
Sometimes the best response to memes is a meme. While presenting the 2014 World Series MVP award, a Chevrolet executive praised the company’s 2015 Colorado pick-up truck for having “technology and stuff.” Sarcastic memes proliferated.
Chevrolet posted a meme of the truck with the caption “Technology and Stuff.” The company temporarily adopted the phrase as a marketing logo and gained about $5 million in free media exposure, according to AdAge.
“The guys made lemonade out of a lemon,” Alan Batey, global head of Chevrolet, told AdAge.
Bottom Line: Derisive memes can cause or aggravate a PR crisis. It’s essential for brands to constantly monitor social media, blogs and message boards — and respond quickly. The best response varies depending on the nature of the meme and the issue at hand.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.