Fixing the ImpossiBle
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Don’t Know Much Geography

In late March, a Twitter user named Samantha Ficco was shopping at a Walmart in Severn, Md. (close to the state capital of Annapolis). She saw the store was selling a T-shirt with the “M” logo of the University of Maryland and the word “Terps” (short for “terrapins,” the university’s mascot) over the outline of a state. However, that state wasn’t Maryland. It was Massachusetts.

She took a picture of the shirt and sent it with a tweet to Wal-Mart that said, “Dear @Walmart I want to inform you that you’re selling UMD shirts with the state of Massachusetts on them.” She also helpfully included a picture of both states for comparison. Just for the record, the two states don’t really look anything alike.

This is where the trouble started for Walmart. Instead of admitting the mistake, thanking Ficco for letting them know, and promising to look into it, someone on the @Walmart team responded by saying, “The state of Maryland is shaped to dip down on the right hand side which includes the word ‘Terps’ for the team. – Marie.” A few minutes later, “Marie” also added that, “On the map, MA and MD are shaped somewhat similarly with the exception of that dip. Thanks for reaching out, Samantha!”

When a company’s representative makes such a blatantly incorrect statement, the company as a whole risks significant reputational damage of being viewed as untrustworthy. That’s why there need to be best practices or guidelines in place for responses to these situations.

It is bad to be viewed as “shifty” about issues that can be taken out of context or slice and diced in a variety of ways like benefits or supply chain matters or employee policies. However, when you are trying to say Massachusetts and Maryland are interchangeable, that is just flat out wrong. No gray area there to debate.

The Twitter response also doesn’t factor in the emotion of many college sports fans. While there is nothing to suggest Ficco is a die-hard Terps fan, if she were, and there are a lot of them, Walmart further risks alienating that group by dismissing the misprint as non-existent. Finally, it ignores the adage that the customer is always right (which, admittedly might not always be true but in this case it certainly was).

Four days passed before Walmart tried to recover by finally admitting the mistake and tweeting out, “We’re so embarrassed we may never stick our head out of our shell again! Thanks for guiding this lost Terrapin back to MD!”

This apology at least strikes the right tone of admitting that you made a mistake and being embarrassed by it. It also plays on the beloved University of Maryland mascot. However, while Walmart was digging out of its hole, the Twitterverse heavily criticized and mocked the company and pointed to overseas manufacturing as one of the reasons the mistake happened.

Hopefully we will see something from Walmart about how it is improving its quality testing or training for its customer service reps who have access to Twitter to keep this from happening again. If there is a silver lining, I’ll bet they could make a lot of money off those shirts now.


Melissa Arnoff is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK and a contributing author to Tomorrow.

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