08/22/2014 11:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Academy's Tribute Tweet for Robin Williams Backfired. So Why Did People Forgive It?


What happens when you write a tweet meant to pay tribute to one of the greatest and most beloved comedians in the world, the tweet is viewed 78 million times, and it turns out that you might have unintentionally promoted suicide?

The Academy's "You're free, Genie" tweet in response to Robin Williams' death did just that, and has since sparked widespread controversy. The Academy likely intended for the text and image of the genie hugging Aladdin to be heartfelt and poignant. For the first 12 hours, the general public agreed: Over 300,000 people re-tweeted and 210,000 favorited.

But things took a turn when the Washington Post published an article the next day stating that the Academy's message seemed to glorify the idea of suicide. According to the article, the tweet "violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide," and the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention said, "If it doesn't cross the line, it comes very, very close to it."

Wait, the stakes get even higher. Research shows that inappropriate and romanticized messaging about suicide has been associated with "a statistically significant excess of suicides." Translation? Careless tweets can literally cost lives.

It's notable that certain ideas are innately more contagious than others. Recent studies by the Wharton School of Business have shown that high-profile and emotionally-charged stories -- such as this one -- tend to spread especially quickly on social media. Not good if the tweet in question might be causing people to harm themselves.

But when most social media coordinators are only in their early twenties, how are they supposed to keep all this in mind? More broadly speaking, how do you tweet something with good intentions and guarantee that it won't go awry?

You can't -- not with how fast social media moves and how real-time Twitter is. Even though it's hard to anticipate if a tweet will go viral, you should assume that it will, and think through the implications before hitting "post." Mistakes happen, even for organizations as renowned as the Academy. This time, there was minimal debate about the Academy's intentions because the organization itself is well-respected and isn't known for being underhanded.

If, however, a similar tweet had been produced by a brand that's known for ill-timed humor, or one with a stereotypically dark image (like the clothing brand Hot Topic), then people might have interpreted the tweet in a harsher light.

Because of the Academy's reputation and legitimacy, its misstep didn't cause much backlash. The Washington Post and subsequent coverage denouncing the tweet weren't focused on blaming, finger-pointing, or demanding that the Academy apologize. Instead, the dialogue was more about explaining why it's detrimental to romanticize suicide and why organizations in general should be cognizant of how messages might be interpreted.

In this case, the public was willing to forgive the Academy. But what if people don't like your organization? Would they be so generous as to believe that you meant no harm?

As a counter example, let's consider a company that many people dislike: McDonald's. In July 2013, the brand came under fire for creating a website to help restaurant employees with financial planning.

The site was meant to be a well-meaning resource, but people didn't interpret it that way. Why? Because McDonald's has a negative reputation for paying low wages and exploiting restaurant employees. So instead of giving the benefit of the doubt, people interpreted their actions with skepticism -- good intentions didn't come close to making a difference.

So good intentions only matter if people believe that you have good intentions. The Academy's tweet, while now widely recognized as being misguided, was perceived to be driven by sincerity. The incident also highlights the importance of careful word choice when it comes to messaging about sensitive issues.

Does this mean that organizations should be paranoid about every tweet? Not necessarily. But for high-stakes topics, take an extra moment to think through you want to say, and know that your day-to-day reputation could impact whether people will give the benefit of the doubt if there is a misunderstanding regarding your intent.