Self magazine has long prided itself on staying above the fray of the gossip, cattiness and Hollywood-obsession of many women's magazines. In fact, the magazine is dedicated to health and self-help, its media kit promoting that it is "the magazine that makes living healthy easy and fun." And yet, with its recent embarrassment of mocking Monika Allen, a tutu-wearing runner who is also a cancer survivor, the magazine has shown how easy it is for organizations to get themselves into trouble when gimmickry overtakes good judgment.
The magazine's leadership has taken all of the appropriate, textbook actions to respond to its gaffe and related backlash. The editor delivered a strong apology and made efforts to directly contact the young woman. She pledged to support the runner's charity of choice. My guess is that the magazine will take responsibility and apologize in the next print issue, and likely publish enough cancer-related content to counteract some of the negative stories that have damaged the magazine's reputation online.
But what if Ms. Allen wasn't a cancer survivor? Would that have made it okay for Self to mock her for the attempted amusement of its subscribers?
Analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that "roughly half of both Facebook and Twitter users get news on those sites." As if the 24 hour news cycle hadn't complicated the news world enough -- with broadcast and print publications struggling to fill every moment -- this trend towards social media has led outlets to struggle to innovate to bring consumers from scan to click.
Misleading or inflammatory headlines are intended to get a viewer to click on an article, and views/impressions are then manipulated by web sites for advertising pitches. For magazines that can't compete online, provocative spreads are meant to show subscribers that the publication is edgy and engaging. The result for many has been lowest common denominator gags like one that mocked a cancer survivor who wore a tutu in her first marathon since her diagnosis.
Organizations should take note of Self's experience as they contemplate ways to engage consumers. Humor is a great way to stimulate curiosity, but it has its pitfalls. Spreads and columns should pass the sniff test -- if your child/sister/father was a featured subject, how would they (or you) react? It's not enough for the legal team to say it passes muster, consumers are much less interested in issues of legal liability than they are in integrity.
Time will tell how much Self's attempts to deal with its self-inflicted wound can repair the damage to its valuable brand. Sometimes a joke is just a joke, but sometimes the joke is so thoughtless and tasteless that it causes significant damage to a carefully cultivated public image.