The Rolling Stone Controversy: What Happens When Everyone Online Is Talking About Your Brand But You

While the recent depiction of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine caused quite a stir, provocative images and subject matter are common tools to entice readers. Last year, Time Magazine featured a controversial image of a mother breastfeeding her three-year-old son and Newsweek declared Obama “The First Gay President” after he announced his support of gay marriage. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, magazine sales plummeted 16% on average in 2012. Was this bold attempt to attract lost Rolling Stone readers ultimately effective?

It depends who you ask.  Almost immediately after Rolling Stone revealed its August 3rd cover, Facebook and Twitter exploded with angry readers expressing disgust with such a glamorous depiction of Tsarnaev. On an average day, Rolling Stone receives about 2,500 mentions on Facebook and Twitter. Within 24 hours of the unveil, there were more than 250,000 Facebook posts and tweets mentioning Rolling Stone Magazine – most negative in sentiment andfeaturing words such as “outrage,” “boycott” and “backlash”.* Social media provided an outlet for public opinion, but unfortunately, Rolling Stone wasn’t listening.

While Rolling Stone released a statement standing by its decision to feature Tsarnaev on the cover, it failed one of the golden rules of social media by ignoring online fans. Facebook posts and tweets went unanswered, and some Facebook fans even complained that the magazine’s community manager deleted negative comments from its page. Perhaps even more shocking is that Rolling Stone chose to continue posting regularly scheduled social media content amidst the outrage. Three unrelated Facebook posts and seven unrelated tweets went live after the magazine released its official statement about the cover story, sparking even more anger from consumers.

The magazine knew it would spark controversy with the cover, but obviously saw some value in doing so.  What it completely underestimated was the power of social media as a rallying tool. Within hours of the cover’s debut, retailers like CVS, Tedeschi, Walgreens and Rite Aid took to their social media channels to announce their refusal to sell the issue out of respect for Marathon bombing victims. “Boycott Rolling Stone” quickly became a trending Twitter topic. Even companies who advertised in the August 3 issue are being blasted with negative comments on social media for their support of Rolling Stone, including Budweiser, HBO Showtime and A1 steak sauce. For Rolling Stone, it’s not a matter of losing readership, but also losing money from companies who no longer wish to be associated with such controversy.

Rolling Stone failed, not just because of the image on its cover, but by its refusal to follow simple best practices in the wake of controversy. Instead of engaging with consumers and media in a two-way dialogue to explain their position, the magazine released one coverall statement and refused to engage further. By putting on blinders, Rolling Stone may have done permanent damage to its reputation. However, it remains to be seen whether the August 3 cover will result in a significant drop in readership, or if Rolling Stone’s strategy to conduct business as usual until the whole thing blows over will work to its advantage.

- Michelle Toomey, Account Executive, Brand Communications


*Based on a Radian6 search from 7/16/12 - 7/17/12 using a range of keywords which included "Rolling Stone," "@Rollingstone," "#rollingstone," and "Rollingstone."


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