Industry Trends

Social Media PR Disasters and The Lessons We’ve Learnt From Them



Social media sites have recently become more widely used as tools for PR and customer service. Almost every big, well-known brand you’ve heard of is on Twitter and Facebook, and some of them have expanded their social media strategies to other sites like Pinterest and LinkedIn. But the thing with social media is that it’s in “real time” – an aspect which can be both a benefit and a drawback. It allows and encourages brands to communicate with their customers, but judgement can often be poor and the employees manning the Twitter and Facebook decks often have to make their own judgements on whether the content they plan to publish is appropriate. And their judgement isn’t always correct.

Woody Harrelson and Morgan Freeman’s “AMA” fails on Reddit

If you haven’t’ heard of Reddit, we’ve written a pretty handy guide on some of the lesser-known social media, which includes Reddit and gives a more detailed explanation of the site. Reddit encourages interaction, opinion discussion and debate among its users. One of its categories, or “Sub-Reddits”, is an area dedicated to people offering “Ask Me Anything” type interviews with other users – for example “I am an astronaut, AMA”.

Celebrities have been known to visit this Sub-Reddit, offering candid interviews with members of the website. Some have them have been really great. Now, as we mentioned before, Reddit encourages discussion and debate, so naturally, it annoys the community when people abuse the site’s free publicity angle to shamelessly promote what they’re selling. Which is exactly what actors Woody Harrelson and Morgan Freeman (or rather, their misguided PR people) did.

The most notoriously awful attempt at an AMA was Harrelson’s, during which the actor would only talk about a film he was promoting at the time, and refused to answer questions properly, and when he did, the responses were vague and lacking in ny real thought or detail. He kept avoiding questions with answers like “I don’t want to talk about that, let’s focus on the film [Rampart, which he was promoting at the time]”.

The online community was understandably annoyed, and hurled abuse at the star. Morgan Freeman’s was almost as bad, with many users accusing Freeman’s PR company of answering the questions, rather than the actor himself.

Lesson: Understand the social media site you’re using. If you don’t take the time to research  and gauge the kind of community the site has, then it’s incredibly easy to post the wrong thing, aggravate users, and make yourself look like a bit of an idiot.

British Gas’s #AskBG and McDonalds’ #McDstories on Twitter

British Gas had just increased their energy prices by 10% in autumn 2013, ready for winter when people use energy the most. They were practically asking for abuse when they unveiled the tag #AskBG (which became the top trending hashtag in the UK), inviting people to question them. Predictably, angry Tweeters sent sarcastic questions like “My nan’s just been on the phone (no twitter) should she burn the garden table or chairs first to keep warm?” and “Have you found a way to channel  angry customer feedback into energy?”.

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British Gas defended their decision to create the hashtag, claiming that they were trying to be open and honest with their customers, but the company were criticised for being vague and uninformative in their answers.

A similar hashtag that backfired horribly was McDonalds’ #McDstories.

The brand wanted people to tweet their positive experiences in McDonalds restaurants, but people decided to flip it (unintended burger pun) and write about fingernails in their burgers, chipping their teeth, and getting food poisoning from their meals.

Lessons: 1. Timing is everything – don’t invite negativity if you’re making changes which will likely upset your customers. By all means, respond to any tweets regarding the situation, but promoting a hashtag like British Gas did is likely to bring nothing but negative publicity. 2. Take the time to understand your customers’ perceptions of your brand. McDonalds is known for being cheap and low-quality in terms of both food and (occasionally) service, which is fine…but it’s unlikely people are going to have glowing reviews about the service and products at a fast-food chain.

#Susanalbumparty and Flight 17 “Crash Landing” dual meaning tweets

The first hashtag speaks for itself really: Twitter team misses the double meaning in the tweet; hilarity ensues.

Susan Boyle’s PR team released a Tweet promoting her upcoming album release party, but evidently had not read it back to themselves. Had they done so, they might have noticed that the wording was…not the best. Thankfully, the tag gained popularity because of this, probably gaining the event more publicity than it would have achieved had it been worded differently.

The next one was not received quite so well. Associated Press released the following tweet:

The choice of words caused confusion as it sounded like there had been a second flight crash, this time involving the aircraft carrying the bodes of the previous disaster. What they actually meant was that the plane carrying the bodies from the flight 17 crash had landed safely. Associated Press got a lot of ridicule and criticism for their shoddy writing skills.

Lesson learned: Proofread. Make sure your post doesn’t have dual meanings or miss-spellings. It’s really not that hard.

Amy’s Baking Company Facebook meltdown

Definitely more recognisable to our readers from the USA, but still a great example of how not to use social media. The Arizona based bakery was featured on Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” TV series, which prompted viewers to take to social media to discuss what they’d seen on the show. The owners of the company angrily responded to these comments on Facebook, calling their antagonists every name under the sun.

Lesson: Don’t feed the trolls. It just encourages them, and makes you look bad. At the end of the day, you can’t please everyone; people are likely to have some kind of problem, even if that problem is simply that they enjoy trying to get a rise out of people through social media. It happens. While it’s fine – encouraged, even – to respond to genuine customer complaints and queries through social media, you need to judge whether it’s a genuine query or just someone ranting for the sake of it/ trying to get a reaction out of you. Always be polite and courteous, and if in doubt just point them towards your customer service team.

Black Milk Clothing’s Facebook controversy

Another brand more familiar to those across the pond, but still a good example of poor social media skills. The brand posted an image with a caption which was considered derogatory to women. Here’s the image:

People were angry and offended that the company suggested that looking like the woman on the left was somehow better than looking like the woman on the right, especially when they explicitly state on their Facebook’s “Commandments” page that people should be kind to each other and “not make critical comments about other people’s bodies”.

Their Facebook followers were not happy with this and criticised the brand for being misogynistic, hypocritical and just plain nasty. Black Milk Clothing’s response was terrible: they deleted peoples’ negative comments, refused to say sorry, and actually encourages people to shop elsewhere if they didn’t believe the brand’s “values” were right. The results of the initial post actually gained more publicity than the original picture because of how terribly they handled the situation.

Lesson: Just apologise! If you post something that offends your followers, apologise and remove it. End of. People will appreciate your efforts to make things better and respect you for being mature enough to listen to your audience and react accordingly.

And one who got it right: O2

Mobile phone company O2’s networks were down for a few days, causing mass reception loss and resulting in plenty of angry customers. O2 used Twitter and Facebook to issue a genuine apology, provide updates on the situation, respond to questions and queries, and offer a compensatory £10 credit to its affected customers.

The brand received praise for how well they handled the situation – their use of humour and responses to individual Tweets were favoured particularly well. A great example of how powerful social media can be for PR when used correctly.

Lesson learned: People make mistakes. A bit of humanity, a sincere apology, and swift reactions will go a long way in rectifying a PR disaster.

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Written by Jodie Pride

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