A small plot of land near the World Trade Center in New York City has been thrown into the spotlight recently. A Muslim organization called The Cordoba Initiative set out to build a mosque and community center in the space, which has gotten them wrapped up in a national political battle of epic proportions. Numerous politicians have spoken out against the project, leading its supporters to make charges of racism and breaches of freedom of speach and religion. According to a CNN poll, 70% of Americans are opposed to a new mosque being built in the shadows of the World Trade Center.
The issue is full of pitfalls — words like "bigot," "racist" and "extremist" have been flying all week — but one could have easily been avoided. That is the organization's social media debacle. The Cordoba project hired a New York based social media expert to run its Twitter feed. While his snarky Twitter messages might have been fine when his audience was a small group of New Yorkers, Oz Sultan's approach to Twitter did little more than antagonize people and embarrass the group...and himself.
According to The New York Observer, Developer Sharif El-Gamal did not realize his pet project (now known as Park51) would ignite a firestorm. And Sultan, who normally works for beauty companies and luxury brands, was hired to reach out to the lower Manhattan Muslim community via social media.
But when the conflict erupted, Park 51's Twitter did not adapt well. Overwhelmed by negative and aggressive tweets, Sultan and his team lashed out.
In response to a mistatement from Jewish newspaper Haaretz, the Park51 Twitter feed wrote:
"On a side note, if Haaretz likes publishing fables, perhaps they could go back to the Yiddish ones with parables #welikethosebetter"
That comment brought increased criticism and attention to the group. The Twitter feed has been called "disturbing,” “dismissive” and “snarky." More importantly, it added fuel to the rhetoric against the project. With Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife out of pocket and not giving comments to the press, the Twitter feed was one the only places to get new information from the group.
The Park51 Twitter feed is often written in the first person. After the Yiddish comment raised concerns, the tweet was deleted and a new one appeared:
As Capital writes:
"A native of the New York social media scene, Sultan treated Park51’s tweetstream as a means of communication with the natives on Twitter, who'd have been able to get the “snark” without blinking, notwithstanding the fact that the tweeting was being done in the name of an institution in the thick of a overheated, international public-relations crisis."
Tweets that work for entertainment companies are not necessarily the same kinds of messages that should come from a mosque under fire from angry politicians and misinformed citizens.
Tact might not be Sultan's strong suit. The first time I met the social media strategist, it was at a marketing event, where he explained he did social media for beauty brands -- then started trying to guess my bra size. While I grew visibly irritated, he seemed not to have a clue why his comments might be inappropriate.
Others I've spoken with have had similarly awkward interactions. Such miscommunications also seem rampant on Park51's Twitter. Like this response to an apparently Amish person:
"Amish saying stop Muslims? 1. What are you doing on the computer? 2. That's not very Amish 3. Shouldn't you be making butter?"
Not particularly funny. Considering the context of the current debate, a Twitter feed that informs people of misconceptions about the project and elucidates some of the ways the group hopes to cross cultural boundaries and work with New Yorkers and Westerners to understand the Muslim faith would be useful. At the least, the group's feed should help deflect the conflict rather than contribute to it. Unfortunately, this initial strategy only served to make more trouble for Park51.
As Capital's Gillian Reagan wrote:
"Sultan's tweetstream actually fell into the middle of a series of other culture clashes, really: The clash between New York City and the rest of the country, and between the young generation of digital natives and their elders."
Social media strategists must bear in mind the fact their target audience is not the only one who will read their messaging. In a channel like Twitter, tone is a critical issue. Regardless of the fact that many people in this debate are ill-informed and probably obnoxious, stooping to the same level is harldy advisable.
Since reorganizing its team, the Park51 feed has toned down. Gone are the jokes, and back is the information and explanation campaign.
In the wake of all the controversy, The Cordoba Initiative's project may never even get built. According to Politico, the group only has $18,000 of the $100 million it needs to build Park51. Without that money or architectural plans, it may never become a reality. As Politico writes:
"El-Gamal and the project’s religious anchor, Imam Feisal Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, have at times offered conflicting information. They don’t have a single person handling their message, and are often setting up their own interviews."
As the storm continues, the debate over the construction in this space two blocks from the World Trade Center is so fraught with landmines that the unthinkable is happening. Among the surprising statements from different public figures, Maureen Dowd has asked former president George W. Bush to come to the aid of Obama.
At a certain point, a political thuderstorm is out of the hands of the group that created it, whether intentionally or not. But there are certain things that can be controlled, and hopefully The Cordoba Initiative has now learned that lesson.