LOS ANGELES — The day after the first presidential debate, it wasn't Barack Obama or Mitt Romney getting the most attention on social media. It was the maker of colorful kitchen appliances.
KitchenAid spent much of Thursday trying to repair the damage from a wayward tweet about President Obama that whipped up social media outrage faster than one of its blenders can spit out a smoothie.
The PR disaster shows the risks that companies take in using social media to leverage their brands. With 140 million active users worldwide, Twitter has been an especially popular site for corporations looking to advertise new products or tout discounts, particularly during big events such as the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl.
The tweet, put out by a member of the company's social media team during the Obama-Romney faceoff Wednesday, attacked the president in a particularly personal way.
As Obama reminisced about his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died shortly before Obama was elected president in 2008, the tweet appeared on KitchenAid's official Twitter account, KitchenAidUSA: “Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! She died 3 days b4 he became president!”
Angry Twitter users soon threatened to boycott the Benton Harbor, Mich., company.
The appliance maker, which is owned by Whirlpool Corp., quickly deleted the tweet. Cynthia Soledad, a KitchenAid marketing executive, issued apologies via Twitter and Facebook.
“I would like to personally apologize to President Barack Obama, his family and everyone on Twitter for the offensive tweet sent earlier,” she wrote. “It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won't be tweeting for us anymore.”
Soledad said in a separate statement that the employee meant to post the tweet on a personal account but mistakenly sent it instead through the corporate account.
In contrast to traditional advertising, the Twitter medium is unforgiving. The click of a button can send the wrong message to millions. There were about 10 million debate-related tweets issued during Wednesday's debate.
“Corporate America is completely wrestling with how to control all of their social media presences,” said Eric Yaverbaum, associate publisher of four social media magazines. “The lesson is, don't give the keys to your Twitter account to a kid.”
KitchenAid isn't the first company to commit a high-profile social media gaffe.
After a gunman rampaged through a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July, leaving a dozen people dead, online retailer CelebBoutique tweeted that its Kim Kardashian-inspired Aurora dress was behind the term's popularity on Twitter.
“Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired dress ;)” said the tweet, which included a link to the product page for the $157 garment.
Twitter users quickly condemned the callous statement. CelebBoutique blamed the gaffe on its PR team, which it said was based outside the U.S. and therefore unaware of the tragedy.
When Arab Spring protests were raging in the Middle East in 2011, fashion designer Kenneth Cole posted on Twitter: “Millions are in an uproar in Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”
In a contrite follow-up, Cole wrote that his “attempt at humor” was “insensitive.”
To prevent such debacles, many brands, including Target Corp., have hired social media directors to manage the accounts and write guidelines.
At Target, all team members with access to the retailer's social media accounts receive training. The chain also advises “double-checking, triple-checking that you're using the right account to share messages,” said Target social media spokesman Joe Curry.
“Certainly when we use social media, there could be potential risks, but sometimes the risks are worth taking to be part of the conversation.”
KitchenAid apologized and explained itself swiftly, which lessened the damage, said David Gerzof Richard, a social media professor at Emerson College in Boston and founder of communications firm Bigfish.
“In a crisis situation like this, it could take 70 years to build a brand and one tweet to tear it down,” he said. “They did as good of a job handling the situation as they could.”
“This is not that uncommon of a mistake,” said Alan Webber, a social risk management analyst at Altimeter Group. “Obviously you can't take back what you said, but you can say, ‘We're sorry,' and you can say, ‘This is what we're doing to make sure this doesn't happen again.' ”