PR, like nature itself, can be a Darwinian struggle, red in tooth and claw, with survival going to the fittest.
This week Twitter offered an object lesson in the need for quick-thinking and lightning speed both in the wild and on social media when a weasel took a ride on a flying woodpecker.
Alert brands and creative types went nuts when a London photographer caught an image of a woodpecker flying off with an apparently hungry weasel on its back. The bird eventually landed and escaped its furry tormenter.
So how did brands do in jumping on the memes? Several experts say there were successes mixed with some not-so-hot efforts.
The fun began when the photo was published and Twitter exploded with #WeaselPecker and #WoodpeckerAndWeasel hashtags. Clever image manipulators added passengers like Ellen DeGeneres and Vladimir Putin, and brands chimed in.
— The Moscow Times (@MoscowTimes) March 3, 2015
Perhaps smartest of all, from a brand perspective, was Adobe, which no doubt picked up on chatter about whether the image was manipulated with Adobe Photoshop. Adobe let slip the dogs of digital war and sent them baying after the furry and feathered partners in flight.
— Adobe Photoshop (@Photoshop) March 3, 2015
Writer and PR expert David Meerman Scott, bestselling author of the groundbreaking book “Newsjacking,” praised Adobe’s quick thinking.
“Adobe’s tweet was brilliant,” he said. “Rather than them creating the image, they posed a challenge that others do so. Because Adobe products are used to manipulate photos, it is a perfect way to create interest around this fast moving meme. Newsjacking is both an art and a science and Adobe got this one just right.”
British Airways put a weasel on the back of one of its jets, making an on-message travel joke.
— British Airways (@British_Airways) March 4, 2015
Then again, a Daily Telegraph cartoonist used the image to take a swipe at airlines for one of the inconveniences of travel: lost luggage.
— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) March 4, 2015
Jonathan Rick, principal of The Jonathan Rick Group, said the #WeaselPecker meme represented a terrific fusing of two tried-and-true practices—newsjacking and humor.
“Will a hashtagged tweet boost sales?” Rick said. “No. But it will heighten brand loyalty, which is social media’s sweet spot.
“Too often, when brands on Twitbook reach for humor or newsjacking, they end up as an epic fail. But when they nail it—whether with #WeaselPecker or #TheDress—the result is funny and memorable, which is exactly what every advertiser is aiming for.”
Not everyone was sold on all the frenzied Photoshopping. Christopher Barger, senior vice president for digital programs at Voce Communications, said companies try to jump in on this because they see a built in audience: “Everyone is talking about this meme already, so how can we ride it to some free airtime or publicity?”
The challenge, however, is relevancy. “You can’t just ham-handedly ride the meme hoping to get traction from it, you have to have some kind of relevancy or reason that the meme fits your brand. British Airways, I think, is an example of a company with a sort of natural dovetail with the weasel-pecker because their products fly—it was relevant to the meme. Other companies, however, will just look like they’re forcing a fit.”
Companies riding a meme usually look like they’re trying too hard and will fall flat, Barger says.
“The worst thing that ever happened to our industry was that Oreo dunk-in-the-dark tweet,” Barger says, “because now everyone considers that kind of pop culture touchstone to be the Holy Grail. We see hundreds of marketers trying to duplicate that kind of pop culture moment instead of focusing on their brand messaging and business objectives.”
Perhaps a case in point might be the “Today” show and WGN-TV digitally paste their anchors or weatherman aboard the flying weasel. Nice try, gang. Really.
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) March 4, 2015
Blow it in newsjacking, and worse than merely looking off-step, you could end up the object of mockery yourself, warns Josef Blumenfeld, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Cengage Learning.
“With authenticity mattering more than ever, overplay your hand and pretend that your company is something that it’s not, and the social media world, in particular, will highlight your mistakes and missteps,” he says.
Then again, cartoonists and illustrators were a natural fit. Some of them got wildly creative, leaving mere Photoshoppers in the dust and, not coincidentally, doing some self-promotion on the back of a bird. Check out David Petersen, who draws “Mouse Guard,” “a comic about mice with swords.”
— David Petersen (@mouseguard) March 6, 2015
Leave it to Oxford University to offer some historical perspective. The university’s Bodleian Libraries tweeted an article from the Mirror, headlined, “We have evidence that weasels have been riding birds for centuries!” The illustration, from the 13th-century manuscript known as the “Ashmole Bestiary,” depicts a weasel riding on the back of a basilisk, a half-bird, half-reptile creature.
— Bodleian Libraries (@bodleianlibs) March 4, 2015
In the end, JacQuelìne M. Mestre of [TÒMA] Image Group offered this succinct advice: “Ride the wave if you can make it work for you.”