Absent a viral video, strategically planned marketing campaign or the spontaneous heroism of an employee, a global cacophony of disturbing tweets can mean only one thing. 

Somebody screwed up.

Somebody said or wrote or posted something racist, sexist, ageist, insensitive, political incorrect or, perhaps worst of all, simply stupid. 

And you have to look hard to find an example of greater stupidity than American Apparel's latest mistake — confusing an image of a space disaster that took seven lives with a fireworks display.

Smoke, Clouds and Carelessness

Last Thursday, just in time for the Fourth of July, one of the clothing line's social media managers reblogged an image of the fatal 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion to the company's Tumblr account — and trivialized it with the hashtags “smoke” and “clouds.”

As journalist Brian Braiker quickly noted:

That’s not 'clouds,' you American Apparel morons. That’s the iconic photo of the 1986 Challenger explosion — in which seven people lost their lives — superimposed over a red background."

What can you say? #Sad #Stupid

American Apparel caught the error in about 45 minutes. It removed the image and issued an apology, of sorts.

Actually, it had a novel defense to the egregious error: The person posting it was too young to know what it was.

Good thing some adults work at the company, too, or the Tumblr post might have remained longer than 45 minutes.

But it's hard to accept an apology from a company with a reputation for manipulating bloggers to get publicity, as plenty of people quickly tweeted.

The Value of Thinking

Youth and ignorance aside, there's a bigger issue here that extends far beyond the dubious social media practices of a lone clothing company. As one person succinctly stated:

You don't have to work hard to find the source of the Challenger image. It's right there, on Wikipedia.

Here We Go Again

And it's hard not to keep shaking your head — and asking "Really?" in that really snarky way that only someone born in the post-Challenger era can say quite right — when you check out the subsequent July 4th image American Apparel posted.

It doesn't glorify a national tragedy, but it sure seems supportive of eating disorders.

Are we really more likely to buy a sweater if we think it emphasizes our rib cage?

Maybe American Apparel should just shut up.

Put Some Clothes On

American Apparel is an anomaly — a company that champions US manufacturing and the rights of immigrant workers while simultaneously sexualizing the young women it features in its ads and outsourcing its social media to an "international employee."

It posted about $270 million in net losses since 2010 and is struggling to find ways to avoid defaulting on a $10 million loan.

On June 18, the chain’s board suspended founder and Chief Executive Officer Dov Charney with plans to fire him in 30 days. Charney is accused of misconduct, including retaliation against a former employee who sued him, the misuse of corporate funds and walking around the office in his underwear.

Focus Forward

Let's assume, for the moment, that this latest American Apparel fiasco was actually an accident and not a massively inappropriate publicity stunt. What can other companies learn?

Don't gossip: Stop reblogging, retweeting and reposting with impunity. Read the story or do at least cursory research on images before you share them on your corporate social networks. The random reuse of information "could combine to create ideal conditions for rumor persistence, belief polarization and the dissemination of misinformation that can -- intentionally or unintentionally -- undermine deliberation."

Hire the right employees: Reputation management in social media is often based on employee behavior. That means recruitment and internal branding — in the sense that all employees should internalize the company brand values and act accordingly — are among the most important ways to manage corporate reputation online.

Think about your audience: Successful social media accounts curate relevant content and engage their audiences. With that in mind, consider this question. Say American Apparel had actually posted a photo of fireworks instead of the heart-wrenching Challenger image. How would such a photo — with only the hashtags "smoke" and "clouds" and no reference to Independence Day in the US — have helped it advance its brand or engage its customers?

Own your mistakes: We all do dumb things. The best defense is a sincere and unqualified apology. Don't blame someone too young to know better. Don't make excuses. Don't overthink the response. Just concede the obvious. "We have made a terrible mistake. We are deeply sorry."

Consider the big picture: Social media does not exist in a vacuum. It is simply part of a company's complete communications strategy. Apply the same level of scrutiny to information disseminated through social media that would be done elsewhere. If you don't let an intern sign-off on a television commercial you plan to broadcast or authorize new messaging for your product line, then why give someone with little industry experience carte blanche to represent your brand on social channels?

#Think. #Pause. #Think Again: That sums it up pretty well.

Title image by Asa Aarons/all rights reserved.