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PR Fail: The Onion's Stinky Tweet at the Oscars
By: Shawn Paul Wood
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What do you get when you cross the satirical wunderkinds at 'The Onion' and The Oscars? Plenty of opportunity to screw up. By now, you have heard that has happened when someone at The Onion decided to call a nine-year-old girl something that rhymes with runt (but much more offensive) and didn't think about repercussions. The tweet goes out, targeting Quvenzhané Willis (star of the Oscar-nominated "Beasts of the Southern Wild") and for 60 minutes, The Onion encountered something it never has before — vitriol

People who watch a Comedy Central Roast understand what they are getting — jokes that are so far out of bounds you have to laugh or you will just cringe with discomfort. People who appreciate humor like that find a respite with The Onion. There is genius writing and thinking on that website, but you have to sift through the "Did they really just say that" moments to see what's between the lines. Rewind to the Oscars and you will find that some of the most ardent Onion supporters even thought they went too far. That's like telling Al Gore he is too concerned about the environment or George Clooney that he should really start thinking about dating in his own demographic. It is what it is and if you don't like it, turn away. 

The problem is that people couldn't turn away from the train wreck that was that aforementioned tweet. The angst was so public and so viral that The Onion was faced with another conundrum with which it had never faced — removing a tweet for going too far. To make matters seem more like a typical crisis communications debacle, Onion CEO Steve Hannah issued a mea culpa: 
Feb. 25, 2013
Dear Readers,

On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion's commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.


Steve Hannah
The Onion
Believe it or not, there are some in the Twitterverse who felt this was unnecessary. However, those people are probably never faced with public scrutiny and ridicule. There is a point of no return and "gone too far," and The Onion just found it — there are just some things you should not say. Throughout my life, I have had to learn that lesson the hard way. Offended? Pish. Tosh. Well, as we all learn in PR, there is a distinct difference how you intend something to be heard and how your intentions are actually heard. 

That said, The Onion withdrew the tweet within one hour of its unfortunate broadcast and "took steps to discipline those responsible." 

Many things in life should be taboo because they are objective. Vilifying children should not be in the gray zone, even in comedy. Crisis communications tends to put things into perspective, even when a rear-view mirror doesn't exist. There isn't time to prepare for something like this; you have to respond and not react. Fortunately, The Onion figured that lesson out the hard way as well. What do you think? 

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About the Author
Shawn Paul Wood is a hack-turned-flack with more than 20 years of collective journalism, copywriting and marketing communications experience. Shawn Paul is founder of Woodworks Communications in Dallas, Texas. If you need him, ping him here or follow him on Twitter @ShawnPaulWood
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