Yesterday, Twitter flexed its muscles once again as a corporate
watchdog. An independent artist alleged that stationery company
Paperchase plagiarized her word and the allegation went viral on the popular microblogging service.

While the firestorm ensued, Paperchase, which is without much of a
social media presence, responded later in the day with an explanation.

The story put forth by Paperchase is that:

  • Paperchase bought the design “in good faith” from a reputable agency.
  • In November 2009, Paperchase brought the issue of potential plagiarism up with agency when the artist, HiddenEloise, contacted them.
  • The agency “categorically denied” the possibility that plagiarism was involved.
  • Paperchase responded to HiddenEloise and didn’t hear anything back.

While Paperchase’s version of events seems plausible on the surface, it’s probably not wise to pass judgment until all the facts come out.

But since the angry tweets started flowing, new facts have emerged. Most importantly, Paperchase named the agency (Gather No Moss) that it purchased the design from and posted a statement prepared by Gather No Moss. Some had questioned whether Paperchase was lying about an agency being involved in an effort to deflect blame. Clearly that was not the case.

I think there are a couple of key points to be made here:

Social media is really powerful.
Social media gives leverage to those who are often without it, and that’s a very good thing. In less than a day, a single individual who couldn’t afford a legal battle with a big company sparked a firestorm that engulfed that company. Needless to say, whatever happens, it is clear that social media will have played a big role in the outcome, which is hopefully amicable and fair.

Social media can be too powerful.
Virtual lynch mobs form easily, and action often comes before contemplation. Within a day, Paperchase had issued a statement and provided details about what happened. For some, however, only an immediate response will do. The problem with this is that it’s always better for everyone involved that the response be substantive and informed, not hastily put together before all the facts are known and interested parties consulted. Here, Paperchase explained that the design in question had been purchased from an agency and gave the agency the courtesy of writing a statement of its own before its name was made public. Like it or not, that was absolutely the right thing to do.

At the end of the day, social media has changed the art of crisis management. As my colleague Aliya Zaidi noted, “if you do something wrong, expect to be exposed publicly within seconds, minutes or hours.” The speed at which full-blown crises can erupt through social media is something most companies have never seen before. Because of that, social media crises can be very disorienting. Yet good crisis management still requires responding with substance, something that’s hard to do when you’re focused more on the speed with which you respond.

There are no easy answers here. Realistically, companies do need to react much quicker than they may have been able to in the past if they want to nip crises in the bud, and it does help to have a social media presence. But at the same time, rushing to provide any response before you can put together a thoughtful, meaningful response isn’t a good idea. There will always be individuals who are ready to jump the gun and who will take sides before knowing the facts. Companies will never be able to please these people so when dealing with a crisis, they should ignore extreme elements and focus on getting the response right.

In other words, they might heed the advice of Napoleon Bonaparte, who once said “Order marches with weighty and measured strides. Disorder is always in a hurry.” Just don’t wait too long.

Photo credit: Ana Patrícia Almeida via Flickr.