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Ken Magill

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Twitter, Urban Outfitters, Pitchforks and Torches

6/7/11

By Ken Magill

Watching Urban Outfitters’ recent seemingly disastrous PR fiasco play out on Twitter and in the media reminded me of an old joke:

“What are you doing with those pitchforks and torches?” asks the king. “We’re revolting!” answers a voice from the mob. “I know that,” says the king. “But what are you doing with those pitchforks and torches?”

Independent artist Stevie Koerner on May 25 posted on her Tumblr page what seemed to be pretty solid evidence that Urban Outfitters had ripped off her jewelry design—states with heart-shaped holes punched in them.

The following day, blogger Amber Karnes picked up the story and Tweeted about it, calling for a boycott of Urban Outfitters.

Twitterville went nuts. Urban Outfitters took the jewelry down. All hail the power of social media, right?

Well, not so fast.

Turns out Koerner’s jewelry design wasn’t so unique after all.

Writer Helen Killer—that can’t be her real name, right?—posted a piece on Regretsy.com showing multiple pieces of jewelry strikingly similar to Koerner’s, some of which had been on sale long before Koerner began selling hers on the site.

“Now, I’m not generally the voice of reason, so this is an uncomfortable position to take,” wrote Killer. “But I’m just not sure I want to start a boycott over an idea that many people have had, some for years before Truche [Koener] even opened her Etsy store.”

Soon after, Urban Outfitters published a statement saying it “unequivocally denies copying independent jewelry maker Stephanie Koerner” and that it planned to put the jewelry back up for sale.

Dubbed “Destination Necklaces,” as of last week Urban Outfitters had them available for Texas, Florida, Italy, California and France.

Urban Outfitter’s Twitter trouble speaks to the power of social media alright, but not in the way so many of social media’s proponents think.

It speaks to the power of social media to enable mob behavior.

Trends on Twitter—at least when I’m aware of them—remind me of the chickens my wife and I have in our back yard.

We have 45 hens and two roosters.

Every once in a while, for no discernable reason, they all start squawking at once. Then as quickly as they started, they stop and begin scratching and pecking the ground again like nothing happened.

Oh, there was one time they were so loud and carried on so long I thought there might have been a predator among them so I took a shotgun down to their yard thinking I was going to have to kill something.

Um, scratch that.

Oh, there was one time they were so loud and carried on so long I thought there might have been a predator among them so I took a Havahart trap down to their yard thinking I was going to have to gently trap something, set it free to happily frolic in a forest miles from our house and then hold hands with my wife and skip with her through a meadow while singing “Born Free.”

But as usual, the squawking was about nothing.

Now, it’s not always about nothing. We have lost half our flock on two occasions to a predator or predators. And then there’s the occasional hawk picking them off in singles. But usually, their bouts of group squawking are loud, short, and meaningless.

To me, that’s Twitter from a PR perspective. Every once in a while, the squawking means something, but very often it’s just loud.

Does this mean PR and marketing executives shouldn’t pay attention to what’s being said about their brands online? Of course not. And if negative buzz seems to be sticking, they need to answer, just as Urban Outfitters did.

It simply means that even in the age of social media, reacting intelligently is still more important than reacting instantly.

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