3 Avoidable, Facepalm-Worthy Social Media Moments by Brands

The Internet is rife with cases of Facebook posts gone wild and social media managers posting tweets to the wrong account. You’d think that people who engage in social media for a living would know full well about the consequences of mixing work and play. But somehow it happens, time and time again. Stories of offbeat jokes that come off as completely disengenuous, tweets that make you scratch your head and go “did they really just do that?”

I’ve handpicked a few examples, notable snafus done by large brands and their people. We already know that anyone is one off-coloured tweet from being fired from their jobs. But the consequence for brands can be truly damaging if left un-adressed (or not addressed fast enough).

(In no particular order)

1) KitchenAid: 

During the first US presidential debate, a joke that was meant for a social media staffer’s personal account accidentally went to @KitchenAidUSA. Staffer in question tweeted a joke about President Obama’s deceased grandmother (she passed away a few days before he won the 2008 elections):

This isn’t the venue to discuss whether Obama’s performance in the debate was laughable or not, but the joke was in bad taste. Naturally, the social media world was all over this, with news spreading like wildfire about KitchenAid’s snafu. The best part about this story however is how KitchenAid took care of this PR mini-crisis.

First, they deleted the offending tweet (no use having your dirty laundry for everyone to see). Secondly, they issued a series of apologies. Not from the offending social media staffer, but from a senior director at KitchenAid. Cynthia Soledad issued a statement to AdWeek and the Huffington Post:

During the debate last night, a member of our Twitter team mistakenly posted an offensive tweet from the KitchenAid handle instead of a personal handle. This tasteless joke in no way represents our values at KitchenAid…That said, I lead the KitchenAid brand, and I take responsibility for the whole team. I am deeply sorry to President Obama, his family, and our consumers for this careless error.

Needless to say:

 Lesson: Dead people jokes aren’t really funny most of the time.

The real lesson: For social media managers who use dashboards like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, triple-check every tweet that goes out and please for the love of all thing cuddly check that you’re posting to the right account. Better yet, don’t mix work and play – use Twitter’s web interface for your personal account or another app if you have to.


2) Durex (South Africa)

The South African arm of infamous condom maker Durex decided to have a hashtag campaign, telling people to post their best sex jokes to #DurexJokes. Sounds innocuous right? What could possibly go wrong?


A day before the country was to launch their 16 Days of Activism campaign condoning violence against women and children, @durexSA decided to post this particular joke:

The thing with sex jokes is that most of them are of questionable taste to begin with. So when Durex posted the one above you know there was going to be some trouble. After the tweet was posted, Durex immediately received backlash from local feminist groups feministSA who likened the whole situation to encouraging sexual abuse. Opinions on the whole fiasco on Twitter were divided though, some agreeing with the feminist group and others calling this a gross overreaction. Regardless of which side you’re on, you can’t help but think the timing of this tweet was so poorly thought out.

What’s interesting is that initially Durex SA refused to admit they were wrong – they insisted their critics “lacked a sense of humour”. After the tweet was published, they continued to post sex jokes throughout the day. And instead of owning up to their poor judgement, Durex SA pointed their finger at Euro RSCG (the agency responsible for handling their social media).

Caving in to public pressure, Durex tweeted a series of apologies the following day:

Lesson: Don’t be a sexist bastard. You probably won’t win many friends.

The real lesson: We can never please everybody, so everything we do will piss off some and delight others. But controversial campaign like this might alienate the very people you’re trying to reach out to (your target audience). Trying to be deliberately funny will at best make you look bad and at worst an exercise in brand suicide.


3) United Airlines

The story is well-documented everywhere, there’s even a U of T business case about the subject. But I’ll give a brief summary: when Dave Carrol complained to United that baggage carriers mishandled his precious guitar, they pretty much ignored him and brushed his problem aside. Many frustrating calls and dealings with bemused personel later, Carrol decided to vent on social media by making a video:

This was the was the snafu that inspired this very post. Although it’s been nearly 3 years since United Airlines broke musician Dave Carrol’s guitar, the incident motivated other companies to reevaluate the way they handle crises on social media. The whole incident has spawned a book deal and speaking engagements for Mr. Carrol plus a permanent place for United on everybody’s Social Media Wall of Shame.

Lesson: Hell hath no fury like a musician scorned.

The real lesson: Reply promptly. Don’t shove things under the table and close your eyes, hoping the problem solves itself. Because newsflash: it won’t. If your customer service isn’t responsive, it will force people to search other means of reaching the company. Your social media team may not be equipped to handle a PR crisis like this, so better to nip incidents in the bud before they escalate, not wait for them to blow up in your face.

Nothing I said in this post is revolutionary thinking. In fact, “watch what you post” is a lesson almost as old as the advent of social media itself. But let this serve as a reminder that you can never be too careful. Have a  social media triage ready, a process for when things go wrong. Because in this day and age what matters is how you bounce back. If you handle the situation properly, you might endear yourself to your audience even more and show your company’s human side. Social media is a very public venue where it’s just as easy to build up your brand as it is to damage it.

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