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When Humor Stops Being Humorous

I did a webinar today on screen communications. It included some specific pieces of advice on the larger issue of whether what you write is public or private. When it is private, you should review it carefully to determine whether or not 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 instill humor into your message.

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

The first example comes courtesy of 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 even signs off tweets he writes with “KC” so readers know they come from him. Unfortunately, he made a joke out of something: "Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at [link redacted] -KC." Within two hours Cole had issued an apology for the message, but the damage was done, and his readers had already started a hashtag for boycotting Kenneth Cole. Ouch.

The other cited tweet that attempted to use humor involved a rep at New Media Strategies, a social media agency, who posted a tweet 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 because, when a mistake is made, that public is quick and ruthless in pointing it out. Humor can be a great writing tool. But when it backfires, when other people don’t see the humor, when they perceive the message differently than the writer does, it no longer matters what the writer intended to convey.

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