Keep it symbol, stupid: the impact of emojis in corporate PR

People on phones with emoji symbols coming out

From Egyptian hieroglyphs to cryptic street art lining city streets, for eons humans have found ways to visually communicate how they think and feel. As Harvey Norman recently discovered however, sometimes a picture can say 1,000 words more than intended.

The furniture and electricals giant was caught in a PR whirlwind after responding to a tweet that claimed "Working for your godforsaken company drove me to suicide in six months", with, in seemingly pure mockery, just two emojis: a 'facepalm' action and handwave.

Harvey Norman Twitter Scandal

Visual communication shapes our world. Sign language allows people with hearing impairments to express themselves, subtitled films can be enjoyed by international audiences and brands like Apple can evoke a feeling or thought using a single, recognisable icon.

Over the past two-and-a-bit decades, the way people express themselves has changed thanks to a new form of visual communication that has become hugely popular over a relatively short amount of time.

A Japanese-derived term originally meaning ‘pictograph’, emojis are integrated with almost every keyboard that exists for text messaging, email, gaming, workplace communications and, of course… social media.

But, while the internet has been around long enough to coin its own dictionary definition of how to behave when using it (see: ‘netiquette’), emojis aren’t quite there yet.

There is no golden rule book outlining that a figurative facepalm and handwave might come across as insensitive when used in response to someone voicing a serious mental breakdown. So, what’s a Harvey Norman social media manager to do?!

Well, a good start might have been to pause and consider “if I respond with a ‘so what’ or ‘LOL BYE’, will that sound bad?” which is essentially what happened, only using emojis.

And therein lies the dangerous freedom offered by emojis when used in corporate communications, both internal and external. Lines become blurred, meanings ambiguous and the ‘author’ suddenly less accountable - because they aren’t actually words.

While the Harvey Norman PR backlash involves someone seemingly intent to belittle, a large chunk of the offence caused by emojis is by accident. Take, for instance, the ‘OK’ emoji. While this symbol is akin to a ‘thumbs up’ symbol in Australia, it’s actually an insulting gesture in Italy, Greece, Iran and Iraq.

Gone are the days of having to travel thousands of kilometres to find out (rather abruptly) which practices are not culturally acceptable. You can do that right at home or in the workplace, by accidentally sending your boss the wrong emoji.

That said, it’s not all bad! There are benefits to using emojis, particularly in marketing, for brands wanting to increase their engagement through either organic posts or paid advertising. Recent studies have shown Tweets with emojis can raise engagement by 25%, while Facebook posts can reflect up to 57% more engagement when emojis are incorporated.

So, emojis are a great way to humanise a brand and engage an audience if it aligns with a brand’s identity (which is important - more on that below).

While we await a golden rulebook, or at least an extensive Urban Dictionary of sorts, here are some top tips to safely navigate this new and exciting language:

1. Ask ‘how would this sound in words?’

As touched on before, Harvey Norman’s emoji sequence translates to something you wouldn’t dream of sending your worst enemy. If that’s the case, don’t hit the send key. Similarly, if you aren’t sure how that ‘react’ emoji will be conveyed, take the safe route and use your words.

2. If you’re writing on behalf of a corporation, use emojis that align with your brand’s values… but keep it consistent.

If the Australian Tax Office began using love hearts in their social media posts, for example, things may get a little confusing. Conversely, if a fashion or sports brand that uses emojis all the time suddenly stopped, this might be disorientating for their audience.

Tone and consistency are two key factors to get right when it comes to emojis. That said, if it feels risky, avoid a blunder like Harvey Norman and opt for the safe route by omitting emojis altogether.

3. If your company does face a social media crisis, act. Fast.

This one might sound obvious, but the number of organisations that ignore crises on social media is too big to count. Situations can snowball quickly and, in an age where consumers value reputation and trust, they expect immediate responses and remedies.

If you are faced by a potential crisis online, seek counsel early on.

Article by Jasmin Hyde, Account Manager

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