Written by • Published 30th June 2015

'Image courtesy of Chris Griffith on Flickr'

‘Image courtesy of Chris Griffith on Flickr’

Fifty Shades is in the news again, though this time not for record-breaking book sales. Instead, it’s possible EL James might be making history for the worst twitter Q&A kerfuffle of all time.

If anyone else was paying attention to twitter yesterday, they’d have noticed #AskELJames trending. In order to publicise her latest book from the ‘Fifty Shades’ series, the PR for EL James organized an ‘ask the author anything’ on Twitter. It’s the kind of easy, fun exercise that’s been done by everyone from Boris Johnson to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

It’s also the kind of exercise that’s known to go wrong. In this case, the #AskELJames hashtag was quickly overtaken by Christian Grey ‘haters’ who accused the author of romanticizing stalking and the abuse of women, glorifying rape and being misogynistic.

However, this is not the first time Twitter has reacted less-than-enthusiastically and Q&As have #failed.

There’s something of a league of extraordinary naivety. Everyone seems to think today’s tweeps will flock to engage positively with a marketing hashtag. Yet whilst it works for some, it definitely does not work for others.

So why set yourself up to make the Twitterati palm-twitchingly mad?

What are some things that can be done to ensure it’s more #DareToZlatan than an #AskELJames?

1. To Twitter or not to Twitter

There’s no doubt that a Q&A can be a fantastic way to engage with an audience. But is Twitter the space for you, your brand, product or company?

Dead Good, the ‘home of killer crime books, drama and film’ host a Q&A every month. Whilst they market it on twitter, they don’t host the Q&A there. Instead, they prompt interested parties to head to their Goodreads page. Whilst reaching fewer people, it weeds out many who might ask uncomfortable questions for the sake of it and offers more direct engagement with those who actually read and buy the books they’re promoting.

Would EL James have been safer on Goodreads? Hard to say given the notoriety of the Fifty Shades novels. However, it almost certainly wouldn’t have resulted in the storm of non-reader engagement it garnered.

2. Organise. Detail. Plan.

Who are your audience? Do they already engage with you on twitter? What’s the aim? The best result? The worst result? How do you want to market it? What topics should be anticipated and prepared for? Answer these questions and you’re halfway to organising your Q&A.

Furthermore, check the details – ie. if you’re hosting a twitter party, take a look at the social calendar to ensure it’s not clashing with another big event. British Gas bungled their Q&A because they didn’t think about the wider company news. They went live just as national headlines announced their price hike, leading to ridicule, anger and some long-lasting damage to their digital footprint.

Similarly, if you’re going to put your CEO live online, consider whether or not they’re digitally savvy. If they’re newbies, consider some Twitter training. If they’ve got a strong personality, think about how it’s going to come across in 140 characters. ie. Don’t hang them out to dry because their sense of humour isn’t as Internet appropriate as their critics would like.

Having a crisis management plan in place can be handy. It’s important to be ready for the worst-case scenario before heading off into the Twittersphere.

3. Hashtags #ThinkAboutIt

One of the most important things to consider is the hashtag. The simplest hashtags work best, especially with a conservative word count. This is why #Ask____ works so well. It’s clear, concise and easy to remember.

But blunder with the hashtag and you’re on the back foot from the outset. When McDonald’s changed their #MeetTheFarmers to #McDStories, the engagement rocketed but not with positive, heartwarming burger-eating stories they wanted. It became a bashtag.

One last note: hashtags are immortal. Google #DareToZlatan or #WaitroseReasons and you’ll find the original threads and the continued conversations.

#AskELJames will last a long, long time.

4. Don’t Feed the Trolls (Do Expect Them)

Connected to having a crisis plan in place, it’s generally a good idea to think about what can go wrong and how you’re going to respond.

Waitrose’s campaign ‘I shop at Waitrose because … #waitrosereasons’ was widely criticized because it led to some negative responses about snobbery. However, many were also funny. And the brand recognised and saluted this. Instead of freaking out and slamming the lid down, they applauded humorous tweets about unicorn food and Orlando with the papaya.

It seems EL James’ publicists seriously didn’t consider who would engage with the hashtag.

Moreover, though it’s ironic that many pointing out the allegedly abusive content in the novels were ok virtually abusing the writer, it’s poignant that instead of addressing the haters EL James simply blocked many of them from the Q&A. Ignoring this kind of problem doesn’t make it go away. It gives them more ammunition – especially when you’ve promised to answer ‘any’ question. Having a redirection plan, having links prepared in advance to answer the more controversial questions, could have moved a lot offline to phone or email. A personal touch, offering direct engagement, can also go a long way to soothing potentially problematic grievances.

As a series, Fifty Shades has always thrived on controversy. In many ways this is yet another example of how ‘any publicity is good publicity’ works – after all, Grey was trending on Twitter around the world. #TeamGrey wins. She made new headlines.

However, considering the effort reporters have made to emphasise complaints from survivors of domestic and sexual violence, not just the more humorous attacks on the ‘literary merit’ of the novels, there’s certainly space to suggest that in this instance a little more thought might have been a good idea…

Fifty shades, EL James, Twitter

‘Image courtesy of Mike Mozart on Flickr’