It's doubtful Yvonne Brill ever imagined a world where a well-meaning group of people could bring a flagship newspaper to its knees by digitally broadcasting a barrage of short sentences.
Because, you know, it's not at all impressive that Brill managed to excel at being BOTH a brilliant rocket scientist AND someone who successfully created and raised three human beings. But I digress.
Here's the original lede, before the Twitter outrage:
“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world’s best mom,' her son Matthew said.”
And here's the lede after:
"She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world’s best mom,' her son Matthew said."
Personally, I liked the beef stroganoff anecdote. It showed that despite the fact she was a rocket scientist (a freaking rocket scientist!), she was still normal and human like the rest of us (decidedly NOT rocket scientists). As a career woman and mother, I was not at all offended by the original lede. In fact, I appreciated its color. But that's just me. Apparently, I should have taken to Twitter to urge the Times to keep the lede unchanged. Perhaps if I'd amassed enough protest tweets, the Times would have obliged.
This whole scenario is a classic example of the delicate balancing act between power and common sense when businesses and customers interact in the online social space.
Social media puts businesses on equal footing with the customers they're trying to attract and retain. Social media lets the public put pressure on businesses when they screw up or commit an injustice. That's a good thing.
But customers are also very astute: They know they can try to create a frenzy via social media, not because it's justified or serves a greater purpose, but because it serves their own personal agenda. Sometimes, that personal agenda is noble. Other times, it's slimy and selfish.
So as a business, what do you do?
Be exceptionally fantastic at what you do. If you make a mistake, own it, correct it, and move on. Give your customers the opportunity to sound off, negatively or otherwise. Trust that your audience members can call bullsh** when they see it, whether it's from another customer or YOU. Respond quickly and thoughtfully. And when it makes good common sense, oblige with the requested action.
Do this no matter if the complaint comes via Facebook, phone, email, certified letter, or smoke signal. Be consistent. PLEASE.
Brill's obituary was one of those times where it probably didn't make good common sense for the Times to buckle. The obituary didn't have any errors. It very sufficiently covered Brill's accomplishments in the field of rocket science. What does it say about the New York Times' authority, if it will change a perfectly acceptable lede just because a bunch of people on Twitter made a stink about it?
Moral of the story: In today's digital age, it's imperative for you to be more thoughtful about when, and how often, your business either shows its cojones — or tucks them away.