What really happens when a brand turns a random person into a social media celebrity

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Tinder did it to Josh Avsec and Michelle Arendas. Wendy's did it to Carter Wilkerson. The three discuss their newfound fame, and how glamorous it has really been (or not).

At the start of the month, Josh Avsec had 730 Twitter followers and could, as he puts it, "post any stupid, silly thing" he wanted to. That number has since rocketed to 23,000.

Avsec and Michelle Arendas, both Kent State University students, were transformed into social media stars overnight, thanks to Tinder. The dating app, through which the pair met, is sending them on a first date to Hawaii based on a humorous tweet Avsec posted about the two avoiding each other over the past three years.

"My followers want to hear the next chapter of this story, so there is a lot more pressure about what I post on social," he says, adding that he has been posting less because he doesn’t want to "step on any toes."

Avsec is taking the opportunity seriously, which is lucky for Tinder, as it did no background research on him or Arendas before deciding to engage them in such a public campaign.

Tinder’s head of marketing and communications, Rosette Pambakian, says the brand did not put a lot of thought into the idea; it just decided to "jump in with the rest of the world" after it saw news outlets covering the charming story.

"Because of their experience with Tinder, we knew they were ideal people for us to do this with," she adds. "They were using the app the way it was intended: to have fun and create a relationship. There wasn’t any coaching."

It wasn’t until after inviting them to pick a location for their first date that Tinder representatives had an offline conversation with Arendas or Avsec.

Tinder hasn’t controlled the pair's comments at all. Avsec notes that the brand is operating on the blind faith that he "won’t say anything stupid."

Avsec, who describes himself as "a broke college kid" who works as a nanny during the summer, explains that it hasn’t been easy balancing a job with intense publicity. He’s spent the past week being hounded by local reporters, national outlets, Russian radio talk shows, Japanese tabloids, and German newspapers.

"On top of the publicity, I have to be concerned about meeting [Arendas]," he says. "Hundreds of thousands of people are expecting sparks and magic. How do we even react to that?"

Arendas says she has found the experience overwhelming. Last week, she was bombarded with so many journalist queries that she turned off her phone so she could get through her regular work day. Avsec has taken on more of the responsibility of replying to reporters about the Tinder story.

"I would have had no idea how to handle [media requests], had it not been for the team in place [at M Booth, Tinder’s PR AOR] which has helped us along the way," says Arendas.

M Booth is pitching in to "politely handle" any press matters if they "get to be too much" for the students, says Avsec, who adds that if he texts his contacts there, they respond within two minutes. Overall, he is excited and grateful to the brand for the opportunity.

Similar to Tinder, Wendy’s also did not vet Carter Wilkerson, who jumpstarted the #NuggsForCarter campaign in April when he tweeted at the chain asking how many retweets he would need to get for a year’s supply of free chicken nuggets.

"When we engaged with [Wilkerson] and his parents, there wasn’t any vetting beyond seeing he is a fan of our brand and well-intentioned," says Wendy's chief communications officer Liliana Esposito.

Wilkerson, who is 16-years-old, has nothing but positive things to say about his experience with Wendy’s. However, his unexpected fame turned his schedule, and the lives of his parents, completely upside-down with no warning.

"It was the longest two months of my life, doing interviews every day," he says.

His mother, Luz "Lulu" Molina, a pediatric dentist, says that the amount of media requests her son was getting were difficult to manage for the family of six. Wilkerson stayed focused on school, but sometimes had to miss classes or track practice to do interviews. He would also make himself available for interviews as early as 2 a.m. for outlets in Australia and London; and talk to press at lunchtime and after school.

"We had to hire [PR consultant Brooke Brumfield], or my husband or I would have had to stop working so we could handle it," Molina says. "We don’t have the expertise in how to talk to people in this environment or the business."

Wendy’s offered no advice for fielding media inquiries and did not help to pay for publicist costs, she adds.


Wilkerson didn’t hear from Wendy’s until 10 days after the #NuggsForCarter campaign picked up attention. However, Molina says Wendy’s was right to butt-out.

"Wendy’s has been there for us, but there was never any coaching on what to say or what not to say," she explains. "But we wanted to keep it like that because we wanted to keep it genuine. We didn’t want anyone to say we were being paid by Wendy’s."

Esposito says that while the brand focused on cultivating a relationship with Wilkerson, it was not a commercial deal, which is why the brand was more hands-off and casual with him than it would have been had it hired an influencer.

"He is not our spokesperson; we didn’t hire him. The relationship was based on the Twitter exchange," says Esposito. "It might have damaged what made that moment so special, if we had tried to over-orchestrate it or take control of it. We were watching and rooting him along, but we weren’t the controller of the event."

Wendy’s avoids coaching or controlling even established influencers because it puts them off and takes away from the authenticity of the message, according to Esposito.

She adds that Wendy’s stepped in where appropriate. For example, when Wilkerson appeared on Ellen, the brand provided him with insight on what to expect and sent staffers to the event for support.

"Wendy’s did a fantastic job; I don’t know what else they could have done," says Wilkerson.

While Tinder and Wendy’s have successfully built campaigns around random, everyday people, taking a lackadaisical approach to vetting or coaching is a serious risk for brands. Just as established influencers, people such as Wilkerson, Avsec, and Arendas, or anyone a brand wants to align itself with should be thoroughly checked out beforehand, says Brent Diggins, SVP at Allison+Partners.

Working with a person who has a checkered past has the potential to blow up in a brand’s face. An Allison+Partners client recently wanted to help someone who was having trouble finding transportation to get to work after the individual’s story was covered by various media outlets.

"Our client said, ‘Maybe we can give them a mode of transportation to work,’" says Diggins, who declined to disclose the client. "We went through processes and found out the person didn’t have transportation because they had a rap sheet a mile long for very serious offenses."

Brumfield contends that Wendy’s campaign with Wilkerson could have easily gone off the rails. Out of the interview requests he took on, Wendy’s was only aware of 10% he was pursuing.

"It just worked out that [Wilkerson] is a good person and he appreciated what Wendy’s did," says Brumfield. "I think someone with less of an understanding or a liaison to help them explain the nature of media and communicate some of the realities of it could have easily felt like they deserved something more and could have turned on the brand."

Vetting is common sense, but when it comes to making hay of a situation in real-time, brands must act quickly. To ensure the vetting process is expedited, all hands must be on deck: the client, agency, and legal teams, says Diggins. Brumfield suggests it should be done within the first 48 hours of connecting.

"It is important for brands at that point to reach out to the individual and offer support and clearly define any relationship or expectations around what may or may not come," she says.