Mea maxima culpa marketing

Something’s always going to go wrong. Murphy’s law demands it. It is your mandatory tithe into the Universe. This is true about everything. I guess character is what shows when things go wrong. And it’s what you do when things don’t go right that defines you. And it’s never the end of the world. In fact, sometimes really messing up can initiate a valuable interaction that wouldn’t have ever happened were the mistake avoided. You’ll always be remembered more for how you handle something than for what you did in the first place. This is what I call “Mea Culpa Marketing.” How to handle something going terribly wrong with as much honestly, aplomb, and grace as you can muster while you’re petty convinced that the end is nigh. And when things go even worse than that, I call it “Mea Maxima Culpa Marketing.”

The truth about mea culpa marketing is that you can’t — or shouldn’t — do it intentionally — though maybe by the end of this blog post you may want to give it a go, just as a test. Don’t. It’s way too high-risk; however, always be prepared to turn lemons into lemonade when they do go south.

When things go sideways, make the most of it; when you’re thrown to the wolves or tarred and feathered or put in stocks or publicly mocked, your next steps, words, responses, reactions, and behavior is what will both define you and how you will be remembered.

Here’s a very fresh and recent example I’d like to share with you. Last week I sent out an announcement email to thousands of my tightest friends as well as thousands more to very weak connections indeed, who are, at best, acquaintances. I move around a lot so the role of the email was to let everyone know that I was starting with my new agency, Unison, and that I would surely love to chat about it. Here it is in full:

Subject: Following up on my previous email

Hi {first name}

I just wanted to let you know that I accepted a position with Unison as the director of social media. It’s right up my alley because they work with brand communication, creative and tech marketing PR/advertising; creative direction and design; and even app dev for web/mobile. There’s plenty room for collaboration.

I’d love to catch up with you. How are you doing anyway?



I surely don’t mean to be glib with this post. If you ask anyone, I was beside myself when I saw that my email merge not only didn’t work but went out to people who’s opinions I care about with the {first name} variable embedded in there. You can ask my email guy: I was a mess. But I have experience and these things do happen and no matter how quickly you want to grab your tanto and end it all like your samurai bushido honor code dictates. Don’t do it. Embrace it. It really is OK and I, too, have survived shame and public floggings — you just need to take your impulse for harakiri and turn it into something much more positive.

In many cases, the sort of tarring and feathering response you receive in reaction to something gone wrong is a better and more complete engagement than when things go flawlessly right.

Here’s my story. I had sent an email to the same list of strong friends and weak connections a couple months ago so it was an update and a follow-up. It had gone off without a hitch as I was assured by my mail guy that the above email, above all he had ever sent, had easily made it into every single email Inbox that we sent it to.

Unfortunately, I quickly realized that a bunch of first responders were ribbing me because they received their email not with “Hi James” or “Hi Mark” but with “Hi {first name}.” I reached out to my email guy and he told me that there were only 30 in this boat — but it surely felt like a hell of a lot more. In fact, it felt to me like the most prized and important of all of my industry contacts received these.

How did I behave? Contrite-as-hell! I happily threw myself on my sword and begged forgiveness — and not in a way that in any way diminished the import of the error. To me, it is always serious, worthy of Seppuku. As serious as a heart attack. It is never for me to say things like “it happens” or “no big deal.” It is only the recipient who is allowed to play, to mock, to judge, or to forgive. It is my job to only be grateful, ashamed, and passionately beet-faced and full of regret.

Why is why one cannot — and should not — build Mea Maxima Culpa Marketing into their social media marketing plan: if it isn’t authentic, if it becomes too regular, or if the tone of contrition seems hollow or false, you’ll probably just make it worse, much worse.

Heaven forbid if you’re brazen or defensive or if you fight back! Heaven forbid if you’re the one who says things like, “it happens to everyone” or “whoops, look what happened” or if you don’t take the situation or misstep completely seriously. If you struggle, fight, or allow your ego to not handle the embarrassment, you will not only not be forgiven or laughed off as a glitch or the price of doing business, you’ll probably rather end up on The Bad Pitch Blog or the subject of a case study of what not to do in Communications or with Email.

No matter what, you’ve done something inexcusable, for reals, and it’s only by the grace of the recipient do you live to see another day. However, if you’re able to fully accept responsibility, throw yourself down at the mercy of every single one of the people you’ve wronged, show honest contrition, appropriate seriousness, and then have enough humor and grace to be joshed with, you might actually grow in the esteem of those people around you.

I am no method actor so I can’t ever fake this, so I don’t — but it really works.

In a world where everyone wears such shiny, shiny public armor, it’s always hard to get a bead on someone’s character; this is especially so in a virtual world where many of us never meet in person. We never have the opportunity to get drunk, fight bulls, climb mountains, or sail boats together — experiencing each other under stress and duress. The kind of experience that really allows you to know each other well past the well-quaffed public mask, cultivated and intentional. Just like the New Yorker said years ago: “On the Internet, nobody knows you ’re a dog.”

Unfortunately, online, there are very few tried-and-true ways of stress-testing who you are and what you’re about.

When things hit the fan, people are very curious to see what happens next. They say, about the news, “if it bleeds it leads” — scandal and sensationalism is what people are drawn to and the way you handle any particular situation is how you’ll be remembered rather than the situation you got into in the first place.

I go into this a little bit in last week’s post Build some social media marketing backbone you big wuss:

“It doesn’t matter that 1%-10% of everyone online grouses at just about anything and everything. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. And it’s not nearly that scary or dangerous, my friends. A lot of it is more about stress-testing you to see what kind of person you are. A little bit of hazing to see if you can take a punch or if you ’re just going to log-off immédiatement! Tout de suite!

Are you tough? Do you spook easily?

So much of the time they’re just testing your mettle and you ’re bolting in tears, afraid of blow-back, with your tail between your legs (even now, I am baiting you and just plain curious to see if you can take a joke, Peter Johnston, you minx) and pull all your resources out of social media because “it’s not worth the risk,” or so say your managers and counsel. Oh for heaven’s sake.”

And that’s what happens when everything’s going well if not perfectly. When things turn ugly and venture into crisis, how tough will you be then?

Dealing well, publicly, with adversity is what separates a seasoned Communications professional from a neophyte.

How did it go for me?

As I am sure you’ll expect, quite few of the folks who received the {first name} emails were concerned for me and quickly let me know. Another bunch gave me zingers and goosed me by responding with:

Dear Chris,

Please remove me from your list. Congrats on the new position. I wish you well.


{first name}

Some of them responded with pity, others said to me “it happens” or “happens to the best of us.” And it’s just fine and dandy that they say it, but contrition — a full mea maxima — does not allow that you ever agree with them. No! At most I will ever say, “thank you, that’s very generous of you to say.” And I mean it, too. The part that I can’t fake is that I was lucky enough to grow up Roman Catholic so a come from a pretty strong base line of guilt anyway — like background radiation. So, I am always pretty close to actually rending my sackcloth. In fact, my dentist knows how much I gnash my teeth so he sold me a guard long ago.

If you’re shameless and fearless, get someone else to be your crisis-response, mea maxima culpa marketing professional.

A few of those folks who responded to my email tweeted their glee and indignation that I would send such an email in bulk and that I was trying to fool them into believing it was in earnest and only to them, a fair statement and I was terribly sorry about that — for real.

I deserved it — what I did was patently inexcusable.

At the end of the day, I was able to use humor, contrition, a thick skin, my ability and willingness to be sorry and appalled, and the fact that I responded quickly and personally to every single response into well over a thousand personal email replies, many of which were not botched, many of which I could better read as simply teasing and playful and not the end of the world once the storm lifted (these experiences are emotional, even when you’re being your best professional self, you still are allowed to have feelings).

And this big mistake might very well end up being the best thing to ever happen to this particular communication. For two reasons:

  1. Many more people responded because of my failure — and I was able to engage with all of them even if not all outcomes were positive
  2. Because I as fighting for my life over this gaff, I spent extra time and attention and gave more of myself and didn’t just call it in, as I might have done had the email gone off flawless.

I would love to continue the conversation about this in the comments. Feel free to ask me anything you want. This post wasn’t easy at all for me to write, as I am sure you might guess.

And to you who received an email from me and didn’t enjoy it, I want you to know that I really do feel quite badly about it. I will try harder next time, I promise.

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Chris Abraham

Chris Abraham, digital strategist and technologist, is a leading expert in digital: search engine optimization (SEO), online relationship management (ORM), Internet privacy, Wikipedia curationsocial media strategy, and online public relations with a focus on blogger outreachinfluencer engagement, and Internet crisis response, with the digital PR and social media marketing agency Gerris digital. [Feel free to self-schedule a 15-minute call, a 30-minute call, or a 60-minute call with me] A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and adviser to the industries' leading firms. Chris Abraham specializes in web technologies, including content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.  Chris Abraham was named a Top 50 Social Media Power Influencer by Forbes, #1 PR2.0 Influencer by Traackr, and top-10 social media influencers by Marketwire; and, for what it’s worth, Chris has a Klout of 79 the last time he looked. Chris Abraham started doing web development back in 1994, SEO in 1998, blogging in 1999, influencer engagement in 2003, social media strategy in 2005, blogger outreach in 2006, and Wikipedia curation in 2007. Feel free to self-schedule a 15-minute call, a 30-minute call, or a 60-minute call. If you want to know the services that Chris offers check out Services If you want to work with Chris use the Contact Form You're welcome to follow me via Social Media You can learn more about Chris over in About Chris writes a lot so check out the Blog Chris offers webinars so check Events

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