I’m sure it started out as a great idea at CellC Marketing HQ? The mobile phone industry has a mostly terrible name when it comes to customer service. Lines drop all the time, prices cripple you, data crawls regularly and call centers frustrate whatever life you still have, right out of you.

So it was a no-brainer to come up with a bold PR/Marketing angle of honesty, integrity and openness aimed at the bruised and beaten South African consumer. You know the story if you’ve been in South Africa these last 2 weeks. But in case you need an overview, care of The Daily Maverick and Mandy De Waal:

On Wednesday 28 July a mysterious Internet user going by the moniker of SABobbyT posted a video clip on YouTube of popular local comedian Trevor Noah going ape about mobile networks in general and Cell C in particular. In just four days Cell C found the offending link, watched it, decided to respond publicly, briefed its big agency (Ogilvy) to swiftly book media space in the Sunday Times and Rapport and to develop an advert apologising to Noah. The ad was created, approved and placed in record time before the advertising print deadlines for the two weeklies closed.

So what exactly did the ‘then nearing Super-Hero status’ Cell C CEO do? More from Mandy De Waal and The Daily Maverick:

Two “mea culpa”’ full-page adverts signed by Cell C’s CEO Lars P. Reichelt later, and the Twitterverse was abuzz with chat about social media hero Trevor Noah, how he had stood up for the small guy and what swell people Cell C were for coming clean. The story was getting airtime and was reported on by no less than Bloomberg while other media pundits were calling the effort a marketing “master-stroke”.

However, what started as a ‘master-stroke’ is fast turning into a sinking ship (in some circles anyway – search cellc on Twitter and scroll through). You can read other’s views on why they think this has been a ‘master-sink’, here, here and here, but I’d like to comment on simply this:

What Cell C and Trevor ‘I need a lifeboat’ Noah missed in all of this, is that they picked a social media space to execute their very clever campaign. They used a new world platform with old world marketing antics. They just don’t go together easily.

The Social Media space has, at some levels, become a sacred space created away from the power, smoke and mirrors of traditional media. There’s a new set of rules that governs, towards the promise of more authentic and honest dialogue. It’s a space that belongs to everyone, equally. No matter your status, your money, your power. In the world of Social Media we can all stand together as equals. You may be able to shout further than I can, because of the size of your network, but you can’t shout any louder. Your view is as important as my view.

So when Cell C (powerful and wealthy) steps into ‘our space’ and sends communication to apparently ‘one of our own’, who can shout quite far with his ‘friend base’ of over 120 000 on FaceBook, and thereby invites us to accept their communication as honest, transparent and full of integrity, and then confesses to this being simply a marketing campaign, you can understand why people are responding the way they are.

My prediction is that Cell C and Trevor Noah will lose credibility through this event. It’s a classic case of two parties not understanding the shifts that have taken place in this new-way-of-connecting-world. Of course they wont lose on every front. Some people out there (see Twitter again) love that they’ve been pranked (or should that be Arked? Or even Noah’d?). But this will remain, for a long time, as a case study of how you don’t do social media.

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