"In Social Media, Everyone Can Hear You Fart"

Sorry for the provocative title — there’s a method to my madness.

By now you’ve surely heard about Kenneth Cole’s wayward tweet:


Perhaps the worst part of the wayward tweet? Its author was no clueless intern who could be readily scapegoated; it was The Man himself, “KC,” a.k.a. Kenneth Cole.

Impolitic?  Insensitive?  Dumb?  Yes, yep, yessir.  Scandalously graceless, even.  The subsequent deluge of scorn motivated the apparel brand to delete the tweet and apologize on their Facebook page (but not before a spoof handle made further mischief).

What are the lessons for brands?

First, don’t be a dumbass.  Think before you tweet.  

Second, remember that what goes online stays online.  The tweet is gone but its digital echo will resound for a while.  (In fact, I’m already dreading the fast-dawning day when Google associates my own name with the title of this post!)

Third, remember that when you engage in Social Media — when you expose your authentic self — you also run the risk that not everybody will like you. 

This last point is an understated challenge. 

KennethColeRevIt’s one of the reasons the team at SHIFT doesn’t automatically nod in agreement when a client asks about the prospect of CEO involvement in Social Media.  We ask questions like, “Well, are they nice? — Or are they kind of a jerk?  Will they give it a copious amount of their time, regardless of whether they gain instant traction?  Will they respond quickly and diplomatically to criticism?  Knowing what you know of current brand perception, would the CEO’s own personality traits truly help the company’s reputation, or does it raise risks that you’re hesitant to admit?”

I don’t know Mr. Cole, but my guess — based on his ridiculous tweet — is that he’s arrogant, self-absorbed, whimsical and largely sheltered from any of Life’s harsh realities.  He lacks empathy cuz he doesn’t need anything from anybody.  That’s a quick psychoanalysis, sure, but it is no more unfair than his own tossed off tweet at the expense of the Egyptian people.  Point is: before today I had next to no “brand image” of the guy; now it will take years for me to hear the name “Kenneth Cole” without remembering this episode.

In the long run, it’s a safe bet that a brand as large and well-known as Kenneth Cole will survive this event just fine.  It was a dumb move, but the namesake CEO realized it pretty quickly; he apologized and will surely move on and never mention it again.  He’ll think twice next time.  He’ll be more cautious, though hopefully not overly so.  Surely his brand has, over time, largely benefited from his outsized personality more than it’s been hurt by it.

Either way, other junk will fill the void and this too, shall pass.  And that’s a good lesson to remember, too.

Posted on: February 3, 2011 at 7:54 pm By Todd Defren
23 Responses to “"In Social Media, Everyone Can Hear You Fart"”


  • Becky Haddican says:

    It’s surprising that the head of such a huge brand wouldn’t know what my peers and I have had drilled into us in high school and college–there is no Vegas rule online. Once you post content, it’s out there for all the world to see, and there’s no way to get it back. Maybe next time, he’ll show a little more sensitivity.

  • Sarah Kirsch says:

    I agree with your take on the inappropriateness of Kenneth Cole’s role as the voice behind the brand’s social media. Clearly his ideas were not in good taste, and it is important that companies have a clear internal social media policy. Someone who can communicate effectively, positively and respectively should be the designated tweeter.

  • kartik says:

    I am glad it was not a wayward intern to be made a scapegoat. This time around it was KC himself, thankfully no passing the buck.


  • Leah says:

    Image really is everything, especially when it comes to social media. It is very important for a brand to have a popular image on social networks. It amazes me that Kenneth Cole would not have thought this post over before tweeting the comment. You are right, every time anyone mentions Kenneth Cole, this will be what I think of.

  • Jason Dea says:

    That was absolutely the most brilliant post title I’ve read in weeks. I agree with your comment about your authentic self. Like many things in life (lottery winnings perhaps) social media amplifies who you really are. If you’re a jerk, you’re an even bigger jerk when given a potential audience of millions. Nice guy, the opposite.

  • Stan devaughn says:

    This is the same Kenneth Cole whose humanitarian homilies have graced the windows of his Union Square shop in San Francisco for years? Hmm. So, was he disingenuous when he wrote the Tweet or the homilies?

  • Ruth Seeley says:

    The Kenneth Cole line is a premium brand and that sure wasn’t a premium tweet, nor was the initial response – denial that he’d made fun of a serious political situation – appropriate. Not sure how I feel about the tweet being deleted (altho props for admitting the deletion had occurred). The apology was good and fairly promptly offered, although I wonder why it was posted on FB (length of statement, perhaps?). However, I really see no comparison between the old Benneton approach and the KC tweet – from what I remember of the Benneton stuff it was ‘wanna be edgy but these kids are way too clean-cut to be anywhere near edgy.’ The KC tweet was just – tasteless and unfunny. However, I’ll confess that had it been said to me in conversation and had it been clear from facial expression that it was a joke, I would probably have laughed at it. Which is interesting, isn’t it?

  • Here’s my take (after reading yesterday’s roast of the man who makes the boots I’m currently wearing…okay, HE doesn’t make them, but his corporate entity pays for laborers overseas to make them).

    It’s what I call “beyond the boardroom.” I work with brands and companies and CEOs, attorneys, business owners, doctors (blah blah blah) every day to be HUMAN in their interactions. I suppose that, if we were talking about doctors, we’d call it bedside manner. And it’s the reason some people excel in the public eye and others fail miserably (ahem, Mr. Cole): humanity. We all screw up, say things we shouldn’t. Had this ended up on Jay Leno or Conan, would it have been received with the same ire? I’d wager to say no, but I suppose context would have something to do with that. Yet wouldn’t the outrage society seems to feel toward Cole be better directed towards a discussion on humanity than purely about his jackassery? The same could be said for Lance Armstrong. Yeah, he’s an ass, but does that negate what he’s done for cancer research? Cole’s no humanitarian in this case, by far, but you’ve got a choice: take one half of the man or take the whole. We can’t get humans a la carte.

    (climbs off soapbox)

    • Todd Defren says:

      you’ve got a choice: take one half of the man or take the whole. We can’t get humans a la carte.

      Spot on (and well put). It’s what I was trying to say with, “He’ll be more cautious, though hopefully not overly so. Surely his brand has, over time, largely benefited from his outsized personality more than it’s been hurt by it.”

      I like the way you said it, better.

  • CreativeBlogger says:

    Such an awesome post!

    Goes to show the social web isn’t all fun and games and as easy as a lot of CEOs think.

  • Dina Meek says:

    Here’s the thing. This isn’t the first time KC has said something provocative. His brand and image are all about that. He has a line called “Reaction”. Did this one go too far? Probably. But if you want to study this approach, check out what Benetton did in the 1980s.

    • Todd Defren says:

      It’s worth asking if that kind of approach can still work, though, eh? It’s true that his brand is known for being impolitic on occasion, but imho it always tried to be cheeky. This was not cheeky, it was genuinely insensitive and callous. The line got crossed.

      More to the point, it was cavalier – it was tossed off – it was not a million dollar ad campaign; if it had been I’ll bet the “message” would have been different. In other words, he wasn’t thinking.

  • I don’t know if I am more surprised about this kind of Tweet or the reaction it had on people, who now hate this man from the depth of their soul for a 140 characters message. You psychoanalyzed him for a Tweet, I mean, sure it wasn’t the smartest of moves, but it hardly says anything about a person. I am actually more curious about why he did that in first place – knowing the chaos that would ensure – than offended or filled with hatred ’cause of the act itself.

    • Todd Defren says:

      I hear ya. I really think he literally just tossed it off, too-clever-by-half, and then felt gobsmacked by the reaction (“d’oh! i’m an idiot”) – instantly repentant and shame-faced… but the damage was done, ya know?

  • Well, as far as Google associating your name with the title of this post, you kinda brought that on yourself, didn’t you? :p

    Yes, KC will probably be fine. We have short attention spans and life goes on. Before yesterday, I primarily associated Kenneth Cole with pointy shoes for men, but I did think well of him and his firm because of the numerous charities they support. The tweet will certainly be the first thing I remember for a while, but I don’t think it will change my perception of him overall unless he does more dumbass things… over and over again.

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