Dirty Dancing is a perfect example of a guilty pleasure movie that my wife and I often stop and watch when we see it on TV. Near the end — just after “No one puts Baby in the corner” — the protagonist’s father, played by the late Jerry Orbach, realizes he has misjudged Patrick Swayze’s bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold dance instructor and states, “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.” Ironically, there’s a social media transparency lesson  marketers can glean from this scene. 

When you’re wrong, say you’re wrong. My wife and I refer to this rule as “Orbach’s Law” and are surprised at how often we reference it in various interpersonal scenarios. We see this at play professionally as well, when people get defensive about their work and can’t admit an error. When it’s not customer-facing, this is nothing more than an annoyance. When it’s part of a customer interaction, standing by a mistaken assertion — regardless of how well-intentioned — can have severe ramifications for your brand.

Of the many new concepts that are a part of social media marketing, transparency is among the more challenging. The increased connectivity that social media has brought about also brings more opportunities for brands to make a mistake. Making a mistake is nothing you can avoid. At last fall’s Social Brand Forum community management expert Kary Delaria stated that she chooses her words carefully, telling clients, “it’s not if you make a mistake but when you make a mistake.” This isn’t intended to scare, as much as to remind you that this great tool brings great responsibility.

Making a customer-facing mistake is a critical test of an organization’s transparency. For example, consider Instagram’s pre-holiday terms and privacy policy dust-up and the resulting firestorm. This fumble left many shaking their virtual fists and vowing to leave the network, fearing that their Valencia-filtered photos of small-plate meals would be used in advertisements. Details aside, this was a test for Instagram, especially given the “Big Brother” privacy concerns many harbor toward Instagram’s actual big brother, parent company Facebook.

Instagram passed this test by embracing a bit of good old-fashioned listening and transparency, or Orbach’s Law as it’s called at my house. A day after the ensuing online wrath, co-founder Kevin Systrom added a blog post titled Thank You and We’re Listening, in which they took their first step and acknowledged that customers were upset. By the end of the week, with users still irked, Instagram “called an Orbach” on their blog and returned to their original 2010 terms along with an honest commitment never to trade on users’ photos or threaten ownership.

Let’s restate what Instagram did right and what you can learn. First, they listened effectively enough and early enough to know that they had a crisis mounting. Second, they responded early as well. Even though their first message did not acknowledge the incident as a mistake yet, it did recognize users’ concerns. It’s worth noting that many forgo this early acknowledgement as they circle the wagons. Finally, they continued to monitor the situation as it worsened and finally declared Orbach’s Law, by stating that they were wrong.

The tricky little detail of Orbach’s Law is the last part. When you’re wrong, you need to remember to say that you are wrong. Often, our corporate culture conditions us not to cede ground or admit culpability. While this approach is bound to get approval from your legal department, it could also be enough to enrage your audience. This isn’t to say that you should universally claim guilt in every situation. Rather, if the error is small and righting it takes little, go ahead and say you’re wrong.

Again, for many organizations this can be a tough pill to swallow. Transparency is scary and can be the characteristic of social media marketing that is hardest to adapt to. This shift can’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of planning and responsiveness internally.

Be open. Be transparent. Be like Jerry Orbach, and you’re bound to come out ahead in a social media crisis. And please — don’t put Baby in the corner, okay?

For more on Instagram, be sure to download your free copy of my ebook, Instagram for Brands.

Photo via Flickr user thedailyenglishshow