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How on earth was the excruciating Robin Thicke Twitter Q&A allowed to happen?

This week Rob Alderson considers the aftermath of the disastrous Robin Thicke Twitter Q&A and wonders how it was ever signed off when what was going to happen seemed entirely predictable. As ever you can add your thoughts using the discussion thread below.

It’s the morning after the night before, and somewhere a head of digital strategy is waking up to the grim certainty that it wasn’t a terrible dream. The headlines leave little room for doubt: “Robin Thicke trolled hard in Twitter Q&A” (The Guardian); “#AskThicke Twitter publicity stunt goes horribly wrong” (The Independent); “#AskThicke Hashtag Completely Backfired” (TIME).

As part of the promotion around his new album, the controversial singer Robin Thicke – whose questionable attitudes to women have long been a source of unease – was submitted to a Twitter question and answer session using the #AskThicke hashtag. And “submitted to” is the right phrase, because it turned into a glorious online free-for-all with Twitter users running amok; challenging, chiding, criticising or just being silly.

“How many naked women did it take before you stopped seeing them as people & instead saw them as YouTube hits? #AskThicke” asked @ProResting. “#AskThicke Once you’ve cracked ‘hug me’, any thoughts on what rhymes with ’misogynistic douchebag;?” mused the usually benign @Pundemaentalism. “What form of sexual or emotional abuse will you be normalising in your next jaunty hit? #AskThicke” @Scriblit wanted to know.

It was, by any measure, a complete disaster, but it was also utterly predictable. As Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote in The Guardian: “We’re not sure quite what Thicke and his people expected, but as every other person in the world (the italics are theirs) anticipated when this Q&A was announced last month, Thicke got absolutely slayed.”

On Monday, the day before the Q&A, my Twitter feed was giddy with people already looking forward to the hashtag hijack that was unquestionably about to occur. And it’s not like there isn’t previous form for this kind of thing. Just a few months ago the former X Factor winner James Arthur saw his Twitter Q&A descend into farce, although Arthur’s unpopularity is not in the same league as Thicke’s and the majority of the Tweets he received were ridiculous rather than scathing (sample: “My pal Steve claims that penguins can fly but they’re just lazy. Is this true? I’m on my roof with 4 penguins, please reply” from @joeheenan.).

We’re not sure quite what Thicke and his people expected, but as every other person in the world anticipated when this Q&A was announced last month, Thicke got absolutely slayed.”

Hannah Jane Parkinson in The Guardian

So how on earth was this allowed to happen? Are we back to the “no such thing as bad publicity argument,” although this seems spurious given the nature of the coverage in today’s media. Are the people advising Thicke and VH1 (which hosted the Q&A) so naive that they genuinely didn’t see this coming? Or did they gamble that potentially the advantages of connecting with the real Robin Thicke fans in this way would outweigh any negativity (a gamble that doesn’t seem to have come off).

I’d suggest there’s something else to consider here. Leave aside Thicke’s reputation momentarily and consider this line from the TIME article: “Though under ordinary circumstances this might seem like a great way to connect fans to a celebrity…”

I’m not sure this is true. Twitter’s great appeal is that it’s raucous, messy, and sometimes chaotic; it works best when it is organic and democratic. Attempts to massage (at best) and manipulate (at worst) the Twittersphere will more often than not backfire. Yes it’s a great way for celebrities to interact with fans, but let that happen naturally, away from the interference of PR teams pushing their own latent agenda. If you’re not prepared to let that happen, you can expect Twitter not to play by your rules.