How to Avoid a Social Media PR Disaster

Since 2011, I’ve covered social media PR disasters. It’s surprising how many big brands, with decades of competent public relations, have stumbled in the new world of two-way online communications — whether it’s allowing customers to make their own satirical commercials or driving a musician to write three songs of revenge.

In each case, I’ve shared the lessons of the disaster so that your brand can avoid similar crises. But many incidents have the same takeaways, so I thought I’d offer some general social media best practices here. 

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Apologize First
It’s an adage in customer service that many wronged customers simply want to hear an apology and have their concerns acknowledged. Before any spin or damage control, say you’re sorry to the wronged party. 

When Jessica Bennett, Lean In’s Editor-at-Large, posted an ad for an intern on her Facebook page — in seeming contradiction to Lean In’s message of equal pay and female empowerment — the negative comments piled up. But Bennett’s response to, as she put it, “what appears to be my entire Facebook feed” said, confusingly, that the post was for a personal intern, not a Lean In intern, and “Let’s all take a deep breath.” Backpedaling? Yes. Apologizing? No. The result was 200 more angry comments.

Keep Your Cool
Some social media PR disasters spring from good intentions and simple misunderstandings. But when brands fight back, they lose a lot of sympathy from the public. Just because many people use social media to post cat videos doesn’t mean your social communications shouldn’t be restrained, mature, and professional.

After a Kansas City Chiefs fan tweeted a criticism of the team’s ownership, the Chiefs sent a direct message to him that included “Your choice to be a fan. Get a clue.” Maybe they thought that was the end of the matter — without even sending a link to where a “clue” might be found. The fan took a screenshot and tweeted the image to his 125,000 followers and posted it on Reddit, where it made the front page of “The Front Page of the Internet.” The next day, the Chiefs issued an apology, which they botched by tweeting in the first person (see Applebee’s below).

Kansas City Chiefs' direct message to Travis Wright
Present a Unified Front
As the Chiefs found, it’s possible to get even the apology wrong. If your organization tweets in the plural, as many do, then it’s jarring and puzzling to suddenly start using the singular. Your audience has to wonder: Who is talking? 

When Applebee’s fired a waitress for violating a seldom-enforced policy, her defenders took to the restaurant’s Facebook page to complain. Applebee’s refused to respond…until 2 a.m. Someone from the company started posting replies to individual comments. This person went crazy, tagging some commenters and deleting others, in the early hours of a Saturday morning. The meltdown was complete when the unknown rep finally posted “No one’s asking me to comment at 5 a.m. I am because I care.” But who is “I”? A social media intern? A franchise owner? The VP of Communications? The CEO? By using the first person, it appeared that Applebee’s had lost control of its communications channels. 

Communicate Internally
Before responding to a social media issue, it’s best to check in with all relevant departments. Sometimes the biggest headache is coming not from outraged Facebook followers but your own colleagues down the hall.
 
Since 2006, blogger Sara Rosso had hosted an unofficial World Nutella Day to celebrate her love for the hazelnut spread. But in 2013, Nutella’s parent company, Ferrero, sent Ross a cease-and-desist letter demanding she stop using the brand’s name — thus shutting down her website and ending the “holiday.” Rosso’s supporters blast the company on its Facebook page for five days. Finally, Ferrero released a statement expressing its “sincere gratitude for her passion for Nutella” and allowing World Nutella Day to continue. Why the about-face? Probably because the legal team was behind the first response and the marketing team was behind the second. Legal saw a violation of trademark, while Marketing saw a grassroots celebration of its brand. Had the two departments spoken before taking any action, they could have almost certainly avoided a week of vitriol and bad press.

Keep these four lessons in mind before doing anything on social media that may spiral out of control — and that includes responding to what you perceive as an unreasonable complaint. 
 
Branding, marketing, and recruiting on social media can be tricky, but Brandemix is here to help. If you’d like more of our assistance, we’d love to hear from you.
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