Earlier this week, social media feeds were busy for the Original Muck Boots Company as members of agriculture and hunting communities became very upset at an apparent fundraiser for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS; an animal rights activist organization who continually lobbies against activities in animal agriculture, hunting, trapping, and fishing).
On Friday afternoon, two photos were posted to the Muck Boots Facebook page depicting employees raising $2,000 for HSUS in memory of a friend who had passed away. Once the negative comments started coming in on Monday night, the photos were hidden from the timeline and eventually removed around 11 a.m. Eastern, Tuesday. The company then released a statement of apology just after noon Eastern. The responses stated that the photo captions were mistakenly tagged as HSUS and the fundraiser was to benefit the local shelter, Humane Association of Northwest Rhode Island (HANRI) in memory of the employee who had passed away. HANRI posted on their Facebook page at 2 p.m. Eastern claiming no awareness of a donation coming from Muck Boots. A second status update from HANRI at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday said Muck Boots had contacted HANRI, a donation was on the way, but the humane association was perplexed by new fans who opposed their ideas. HANRI is not affiliated with HSUS, but aligns with their position on several issues. The updates were soon removed from the HANRI page and all social media channels from Muck Boots have remained silent. Muck Director of Footwear, Sean O’Brien did leave a comment on my previous post reinforcing the statement Muck shared on their Facebook page. Read the timeline and statements in my previous post.
So what can we learn from the events that have unfolded this week? A few of my observations.
- For companies like Muck Boots, transparency is critical if you are going to be involved on social media. Online conversations provide for a rapidly changing environment and it is important to respond quickly, recognize a mistake if one has been made, and provide details on how the mistake is being corrected, if there are any details that can be shared. Remaining silent probably isn’t the best approach. The responses from HANRI (which were later removed) only confused the situation, and some clarification from Muck Boots would be helpful.
- For those in the agriculture community who responded, keep in mind that it is encouraged to voice your opinion on subjects you are passionate about, but to do so respectfully with common sense. The agriculture community needs to lay down the pitchforks until we know the entire story. Several folks reacted with anger and were disrespectful of the employees, especially considering the situation of the death of an employee. It looks juvenile to threaten to burn or throw away your boots based on limited information and a few photos, especially when the other side has yet to respond. There comes a point when we can completely pull support from a company by cleaning your closets of all their products, but that should not be your immediate response when it isn’t even clear what has happened. I’m sure folks who support HSUS were look at the comments, thinking “You dumb rural hicks!”. We expect folks on the other side of the table to be respectful and should be considerate to do the same.
- Social media posts, like this one made by Muck Boots, do not always represent company policy or an official statement, and as appears to be the case in this situation, a mistake could be made by a single employee. Reacting immediately with anger before we know the entire story is not productive and can close doors for future opportunities of conversation. According to Muck’s responses, this appears to have been a mistake and not an official company contribution.
- This situation highlights the importance of communications and marketing employees, even social media managers, being familiar with not only the subject matter at hand, but especially the values of their customer base. Had the Muck Boots manager been familiar with issues in the agriculture and hunting communities, would have they known the difference between tagging Humane Society of the United States instead of Humane Association of Northwest Rhode Island; which was typed, not only once, but twice, with several edits.
- The photos posted by Muck Boots were distasteful. Aside from the face that HSUS was tagged in the captioned, this photo stating that “we lost a member of the Muck team” behind a stack of boots, when the fundraiser was in honor of someone who actually died, is inappropriate. The employees most likely posted the photos with the intention of sharing a feel good story that would humanize their page and connect with the audience. There’s definitely a time and place for that, but we need to realize context matters, and that wasn’t necessarily made clear to the online audience.
Those are a few of my observations and I know there are other opinions and perspectives on the situation. It would be helpful if Muck Boots would continue to clear up some questions that have been asked instead of silencing all communication. They’ve done a great job of handling social media before and I hope they continue soon. I’m sure this will turn into a case study for future crisis communications workshops in the near future.
I also hope this blunder has raised awareness of the agriculture community’s feelings toward HSUS and that we have learned to not go full-out “angry mob” at the mere mention of Humane Society of the United States. We need to do some work on collective responses to situations like this, and harness that passion into a more productive response.
What are your thoughts on the events this week? How can we better respond to situations like this in the future? What would you add to this list?