Smart people are careful about the words they use on social media, understanding that digital gaffes live forever and can cause a reputational crisis. But, even when we’ve figured out the right thing to say, the images we use to support our campaigns can create lasting damage.
Case in point: a recent tweet by the Catholic News Service. Like many outlets, CNS wanted to wish Jews glad tidings for Hanukkah, so it tweeted, “Hanukkah began at sundown. Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate!”
Pretty innocuous and, in fact, a nice gesture.
Then came the accompanying image. CNS used a photo of the Menorah as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome. It’s a well-known motif, expertly carved and prominent on one of Rome’s great landmarks. Nothing wrong with a little architectural imagery, right?
Oh no. Very wrong. That Menorah depicted is held aloft by Roman soldiers, who had sacked and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and carried the Menorah back to Rome as a spoil of war. It was one of the darkest times in Jewish history.
Criticism was swift. “Celebrating the re-dedication of the Temple by showing artwork commemorating destruction of said Temple is awkward,” as one Twitter user summed it up.
CNS is far from alone in posting inappropriate pictures. Sloppy images happen fairly frequently in social media. A few years back, American Apparel, a brand that often courts controversy, had an inadvertent bit of negative attention after it tweeted an image of the famous smoke trail from the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion as a sign for fireworks on the Fourth of July. Delta posted an image of a giraffe to highlight flights to Ghana, even though there are no giraffes in Ghana. A rival airline, US Air, one-upped Delta, once tweeting a pornographic image in a back and forth with a customer.
Why does this happen? In almost all cases, it’s simple inattention. We spend so much time looking at the words and messaging that we don’t recognize that the image is often the primary narrative audiences see. It is, after all, worth a thousand words.
To its credit, CNS quickly deleted the Menorah image and gave a heartfelt apology. “Earlier today, wishing people a happy Hanukkah, we posted a photo that offended many of our followers,” CNS wrote. “The tweet has been removed and we apologize for any offense caused.”
It then made an additional mea maxima culpa, showing more responsibility and being transparent about the actions it took internally to prevent a relapse in the future. “We were sloppy in our tweeting; people were right to be offended,” the CNS wrote. “The person who posted the tweet now fully understands the implications of the picture. We apologize again.”
The strength of the apology likely limited the reputational damage to CNS from the mistake. After all, a solid apology is the first step from bouncing back from a crisis. But the saga is an important reminder that all parts of a message, especially the image, can get you into trouble. Make sure you give your images a second look.