Tragedy In Boston: What The Hell Was Epicurious Thinking?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 16, 2013 – 1:15 PM

After every national tragedy, you can be sure that some clueless brand will try to exploit it.

In today’s episode of “What the hell were they thinking,” the food website Epicurious sent out the following tweets to its 385,000 followers:

Epicurious Tweets

Get your legs blown off by a terrorist? Try these scones! Lose a cherished friend? Maybe this bowl of breakfast energy can help!

Okay, those tweets are beyond absurd. So Epicurious deleted them and tweeted this alleged mea culpa:

Epicurious Apology

First, let’s be clear: their earlier tweets didn’t “seem” offensive. They were offensive. The word “seem” shifts the burden of blame onto their readers, who the brand seems to think were overly sensitive. It stops short of fully acknowledging the obliviousness of their tweets.

Second, a repeatedly tweeted template “apology” isn’t genuine. It’s a form letter. The steady stream of identical tweets does nothing to engage with the audience and express human remorse.

As a result, Epicurious diminished its brand with ill-advised tweets, followed by an “apology” that only made matters worse.

What should Epicurious do now?

  1. 1. They can start by engaging with readers individually—and offering human responses instead of form ones.
  2. 2. They can learn from KitchenAid’s crisis example from late last year, when that company’s brand manager personally jumped in, stated that the person responsible for the tweets wouldn’t be allowed to represent their brand anymore, and offered on-the-record interviews.
  3. 3. They should pledge that they will provide everyone on the staff with social media training; and, if they don’t already have a social media policy, that they will create one immediately.
  4. 4. Epicurious should pledge a donation to victims of the Boston tragedy in an effort to make something good come out of this experience.

I’m not opposed, as a rule, to brands promoting themselves after a tragedy. For example, Epicurious could have sent one tweet acknowledging the tragedy in Boston, and then a separate one featuring a recipe. But by trying to force a news hook into their food recipes, Epicurious committed a rookie mistake that will rightly tarnish its reputation.

Brad Phillips is the author of The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.

h/t: @EmpoweredElaine

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Comments (48)

  1. By Mary Denihan:

    Seems like they are trying to promote themselves at the expense of the tragedy. There is probably a fund being established for the victims of the tragedy. They should anonymously donate lots of money to the fund and the person responsible for the tweet should take some classes from you on what not to do in the face of an inexplicable horror.
    I’m sure this will be a textbook example of what not to do.
    Terribly insensitive.

  2. By Nina:

    Brad,

    Here’s someone who did it right–my friends over at Save the Redwoods League, headquartered in San Francisco, CA. Just the right note of empathy and compassion. They didn’t even have to mention “Boston” or “marathon.” It was obvious what this was in response to, and it was done lovingly, and well, and true to their mission and their hearts.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151663518910676&set=a.196110505675.162282.126053105675&type=1&theater

  3. By Kim M:

    To me, the first tweet seems like a pre-programmed, promotional tweet that was in the queue before the event. The second one, though, is a puzzler. It would also seem the same, except for the “our hearts are with you” part. If it wasn’t for that, I’d write these off as scheduled tweets written before the event.

  4. By Will:

    Deleting the app right now. If Epicurious comes up with an honest apology, I may reconsider.

  5. By Julia Stewart:

    A later apology tweet by Epicurious would indicate the earlier ones weren’t preprogrammed. This is a case where “fail” isn’t enough of a descriptor. Brad, I agree with you that Epicurious can follow Kitchen Aid’s lead… but good lord, after Kitchen Aid, why would anyone get themselves in this type of situation again? One of the top rules of crisis management is to learn from others’ mistakes so you don’t go there, too.

  6. By Patrick:

    Hard to believe anyone could be this stupid. It’s the only thought that occurs to me. It is surreal and beyond excuse.

  7. By Rod:

    It was a straight publicity stunt. Nothing more or nothing less. Who would be that stupid? They are following the footsteps of the many faux pas in the past (ie/ GAP Shop at home/sale tweet during Sandy).

  8. By ash:

    Epicurious could change their twitter’s profile picture to a black background depicting solidarity with the victims and the country’s somber mood. They should also announce they would stop tweeting all together for a few days to regroup and reflect on what had happened and why it happened. Another thing they can do is to get to ground zero and set up a kitchen soup to feed ALL on duty staff. That’s how they should reclaim their brand and can sleep better at night. Every disaster comes with it lessons. I think we all should be grateful we are here to learn from the one who made the blunder instead of in the other person’s shoes.

  9. By Epicurious 'honors' Boston on Twitter: Eat cranberry scones! | Headlines:

    […] morning, I heard word from the site Mr. Media Training that Epicurious decided to use its Twitter feed to offer food suggestions to the devastated […]

  10. By Steve Lubetkin:

    The lesson here for Epicurious and legions of other companies that have bought the fruit-flavored punch drink from their consultants:

    Anyone — ANYONE — who tells you they are a social media
    GURU
    NINJA
    EXPERT
    JEDI

    is not. That is all.

  11. By Maureen MacGregor:

    Epicurious needs to do four simple steps:

    1. Acknowledge that they indulged exploiting a tragedy for self-glorification in a most vulgar and crude way,

    2. Explain how it happened, most likely that they were caught in the very high emotion of the moment which clouded their judgement, causing them to misjudge as a tribute the incorporation of victims into a marketing program,

    3. Inform followers of the steps it’s taken to ensure such mis-judgement never happens again, and

    4. Go dark for a week or two, with its final tweet including a brief apology & donation to one of the many victims’ funds we have going here in Boston. TUGG (Technology Underwriting Greater Good) is a good place to start, but there are many

    Just my thoughts as a PR strategist and a very fortunate & heartstruck Mom whose 20-year-old left the scene 20 minutes before & was in the Pru…

  12. By Jeff Domansky:

    Brad, a terrible PR fail that deserves sharing far and wide. For the umpteen thousandth time marketers: Marketing and tragedy never mix!

  13. By Epicurious Becomes Latest Brand To Suffer Social Backlash From Tragedy-Related Tweets:

    […] them “a perfect example of what NOT to do in the wake of tragedy.” Her tweet and coverage on other websites has quickly picked up steam, as is always the case when brands take this route […]

  14. By Maureen:

    ( tragedy + exploitative marketing) < = (dialing + indisposition)

  15. By Mitch Mitchell:

    A horrible mistake; made people wonder what they were thinking. I know quite a few people who decided to drop them today because of it. I wasn’t a subscriber so I didn’t have to bother, but what an insensitive way to conduct business, and what a insincere looking apology on the back end.

  16. By Jim:

    Seriously, who cares what they tweeted. The problem with “social media” is that it causes people to be less social and considerste in real life. Our society is accepting social media as a valid form of communication, both in business and personal situations. In reality it’s an invalid form of communication where it’s participants are hidden behind veils. I’m pretty positive that anyone actually affected by the Boston tragedy dosn’t care who tweeted their condolences via twitter…be it Epicurious’ failed attempts or the other countless number of “sincere” tweets. I better hurry up and tweet my concern for all those suffering because of the tragedy…and then if course do nothing about it in “real life”.

  17. By Peter:

    Appalling

  18. By Allen Falcon:

    I take Epicurious at their word.

    They are sorry if the tweets “seemed” offensive. They repeatedly confirmed that they believe that the tweets were fine … that they were appropriate.

    They repeatedly confirmed that they are sorry if we do not understand that the tweets were appropriate, so they pulled them down to appease us. We, their customers (current, future, and past) are not smart enough to understand how acceptable the tweets were.

    Epicurious has two problems:

    1) They don’t understand that their social media posts WERE offensive and inappropriate

    and

    2) Their business model includes treating future and current customers as if we are stupid

    Good luck.

  19. By Jesse:

    The tweets sound so juvenile – are you sure they weren’t hacked?

  20. By Brad Phillips:

    Jesse,

    Yes. An executive from Conde Nast, the parent company, spoke on the record about the incident. It’s an amazing story, isn’t it?

    Thanks for reading,
    Brad

  21. By PR Fail: Food Website Exploits Boston Tragedy - PRNewser:

    […] agree with Mr. Media Training that if Epicurious hopes to secure any sort of bounce-back from this, it will need to start doing […]

  22. By lizee:

    I’m a little confused. If you look at the time on the smart phone and how recent the tweets were, it would imply that they happened at 7:30am and 8:00am. Even if these screen shots were taken in California, that would place these tweets hours before the bombing. If so, it was just a very unfortunate coincidence.

    Either way they could have done a much better job responding to the PR outfall, no doubt.

  23. By Brad Phillips:

    Lizee – the tweets were sent the morning after the bombing (Tuesday morning).

  24. By lizee:

    Ah… got it.
    Yeah, that’s pretty insane.

  25. By Joan Stewart:

    Here’s one that’s just as crass.

    I got an email blast yesterday (from someone who ought to know better), asking for prayers for those killed and injured blah-blah-blah. The post-script was a reminder that registration for a program she was launching ended at midnight that night, so hurry and sign up.

  26. By Brad Phillips:

    Joan,

    I also saw similar behavior, perhaps from the same person who should know better, on Twitter. Definitely diminishes my regard for that brand.

    Thanks for commenting,
    Brad

  27. By Yi Shun Lai:

    Epicurious is owned by Conde Nast. If they don’t have a social media policy, shame, shame on them. This is horrifying on so many levels: social media isn’t any different from basic manners. Thanks for posting this–and for the calls to action suggestions. Hopefully they read and listen.

  28. By That Guy:

    This is not an adult conversation.

    Many brands work social media during news events — tragic or not — for the firm’s gain.

    Was what they actually said really “vulgar and crude”? Not really. Opportunism always rules the day. A tweet of sympathy is still marketing, trying to appear appropriately sensitive.

    And by saying this — “The steady stream of identical tweets does nothing to engage with the audience and express human remorse.” — you are acknowledging the manufactured nature of these responses. You’re saying the social media people at the company should have mapped a strategy to come across as genuine, compassionate and empathetic. That’s not insincere? That’s not crude? That’s not vulgar?

    This conversation speaks more to our sub-mental, knee-jerk, inane culture of outrage (which usually manifests itself in opposition to trivia, not real issues).

  29. By Maureen:

    Respect but disagree, That Guy, if I understood you correctly.

    People were using Twitter in Boston to find one another – text is 1-1 where tweets are a form of cell broadcast. Couldn’t get a call through – cell nets saturated and/or unstable. Small digital traffic got through.

    I’ll stand by vulgar and crude.. someone suggesting a recipe for cranberry scones to stand in solidarity with the cops whose shoes were tracking blood everywhere? Uncool to say the least. Vulgar if viewed through the lens of that nausea of not knowing where your kid is, but seeing the footprints being left.

  30. By Maureen:

    Maybe the real issue is we need a very small packet 1-to-subscription circle transmission app, similar to twitter but for emergency use only.

    We’re debating issues that are better solved with an app.

  31. By David Z:

    In other news, Guy Kawasaki’s twitter was (unsurprisingly) active even during the tragedy:

    http://www.prdaily.com/Main/Articles/3ed3d6c1-5f95-40e5-84f8-222392086788.aspx#

  32. By Twitter launches targeted ads - San Francisco Chronicle (blog) - TWITTEROO.NET:

    […] as whoever was responsible for a food website’s regular tweet this week (as captured by the blog Mr. Media Training) suggesting a whole-grain scone recipe “in honor of Boston and New England.” Filed Under: […]

  33. By CT:

    Those look like they were pre-programmed, even our hearts are with you is a very marathon thing to say. Especially with a promotion of the need for big energy that everyone could use. What time were these at? From your screen shot 8:02 am and earlier. My guess is that these were posted before 2:50pm EST when the bombs went of. I agree that after the fact this looks offensive, it would be awful to use a tragedy like this, but were they? There is a lesson to be learned, but not the one you are pitching. The lesson is that if you have something scheduled to tweet and something awful happens, you might look crass if you don’t think to take it down.

  34. By Brad Phillips:

    CT – These tweets were sent the morning after the bombing, not the morning of the bombing. Conde Nast, the parent company of Epicurious, has acknowledged the bad judgment of sending these tweets.

  35. By Heather Ripley:

    Another great post, Brad.

    I’d love to know who actually tweeted these things and how many years of experience they had. All too often I see brands putting social media into the hands of non-marketers/non-professionals just because they’re young and “get social media.” Terrible idea.

  36. By Paul Riverside County):

    Epicurious insensitivity is beyond “judgment.” It is clueless. They would be wise to read Daniel Goldman’s book Emotional Intelligence for starters.

  37. By Community Managers: If You Have Nothing Nice to Say, Don’t Say Anything At All:

    […] The morning after the devastating bombings at the Boston Marathon, food website Epicurious thought consoling Bostonians with scones and a “bowl of breakfast energy” was appropriate.  After receiving a slew of “Are you kidding me?” messages, the brand deleted […]

  38. By Twitter launches targeted ads « SFadvertising.com:

    […] as whoever was responsible for a food website’s regular tweet this week (as captured by the blog Mr. Media Training) suggesting a whole-grain scone recipe “in honor of Boston and New […]

  39. By Paul in England:

    You American’s are being to sensitive we have but up with terrorism for centurys as for this companys tweets if this offended you then you may need to see a Psychologist as you are WAY TO SENSITIVE

  40. By don’t be stupid, don’t be evil – one last sidebar post | brand new shoes:

    […] can find Brad’s full discussion of the epic epicurious fail at his […]

  41. By Joining The Conversation: Lessons In Real-Time Marketing:

    […] brickbats aimed at food portal Epicurious for its self-promoting tweets in the wake of the recent Boston marathon bombing and the plaudits earned by Oreo for its topical […]

  42. By The Worst Marketing Disasters of 2013 | Search Engine Journal:

    […] Tweets have since been deleted, screenshot from mrmediatraining.com.  […]

  43. By The Worst Marketing Disasters of 2013 by @RJohnP | jhWebWorks | Columbus Ohio Web Design, Development, SEO, Social Media:

    […] Tweets have since been deleted, screenshot from mrmediatraining.com.  […]

  44. By Failure to Think – “Tasteless” Tweeting from Epicurious | Olivia Parker:

    […] Mr. Media Training. (2013). Tragedy in Boston: What the Hell was Epicurious Thinking?. Retrieved February 7, 2014, from http://www.mrmediatraining.com/2013/04/16/tragedy-in-boston-what-the-hell-was-epicurious-thinking/ […]

  45. By Andre:

    Interesting piece! I wrote about Epicurious and how they ‘misused’ used social technology during the Boston Bombings. I’ve expanding on a few points as-well.

    You may like the read…
    “Crossing the line. Boston Marathon Tragedy Blunder.” http://buff.ly/1ms6gPr by Andre Hitchman

  46. By Real-time marketing takes hold — Gigaom Research:

    […] at well-publicized real-time marketing blunders that have tarnished brands such as Kenneth Cole and Epicurious. Praise or curse it: real-time marketing is not going […]

  47. By newsjacking vs. newsblogging with David Meerman Scott : orobora:

    […] cites idiotic attempts by marketers to ride news of the Boston bombing as reason to stay away from difficult news. He also suggests that marketers stay out of fields that […]

  48. By How Nike Kicked America In The Face, And 6 Other Examples Of Brands Who Betrayed Their Fans - AmbitiousAmbitious:

    […] We all know that food affects your mood, but low blood sugar wasn’t to blame for a sling of irresponsible tweets posted by Epicurious on the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. You can’t blame negligence either, because the tweet included a little shout out to the people of Boston…before suggesting whole-grain cranberry scones. […]

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