It is not uncommon for a large company to have to deal with a social media crisis and some handle them better than others.
Here we present a number of examples where brands have shot themselves in the foot. In most cases the mistake was completely avoidable, and indeed would have been with a little more care and attention.
NB: This article was originally published in 2013, but has been updated to include examples from 2017 and the very recent past.
How not to handle a social media crisis: Carolina Girls
What happened: It all started when a teenage girl named Casey Syler decided to visit a fashion store in South Carolina to shop for a new wallet. According to Casey, as soon as she walked through the doorway a saleswoman looked up and allegedly said “Shoplifter” to one of her colleagues. For context, Casey is black.
Casey’s mother Rene (a successful blogger) shared the experience on her Facebook page. The post went viral, which prompted an appropriately contrite response from Carolina Girls on their Facebook page. Left there, the fire would have been extinguished and everyone could have moved on. But the store later posted a further Facebook message claiming an investigation had unearthed no evidence of any such comment being made, pinning the blame on ‘young shoppers’ in the store at the time.
The post inevitably poked a hornets’ nest that had begun to settle down. The store’s page was bombarded with critical comments, many of which were deleted by the page admin. To compound their mishandling of the situation, Carolina Girls ended up deleting their entire Facebook profile.
The owner of the chain brought further attention to the unfortunate saga by speaking to a news channel. Stephanie Davis insisted she had attempted to set up a meeting with Rene Syler and her daughter, but the horse had already bolted and the interview simply succeeded in attracting more online scorn.
What we can learn: The old adage about the customer always being right is as true today as it always has been. No matter how certain you are that the customer was at fault, denials, counter claims and buck passing are the social media equivalent of throwing a grenade into your own side’s trenches.
Carolina Girls initially did the right thing by publicly apologising and reaching out to the aggrieved party privately. But inexplicably they then inflamed the situation by insisting they were not at fault and censoring negative comments rather than engaging with an angered online populous. Deleting their page was akin to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand with a pride of lions closing in.
Be open and contrite from the outset, try to take the issue out of the public domain, and make sure your response is sufficient to throw a blanket over the fire. If not, you risk a full-scale wildfire – which will be much harder to extinguish and could irreparably damage your brand.
READ MORE: 8 ways to respond to a social media crisis
A social media crisis handled with honesty and speed: JoJo Maman Bebe
What happened: JoJo Maman Bebe is a UK-based baby clothes retailer targeted at mothers with large disposable incomes. Its premium prices have led to a number of second-hand selling groups being established on social media. One such group, JoJo Maman Bebe Pre-Loved Buy and Sell, has more than 20,000 members. Its popularity was clearly seen as an irritant by the company itself, and culminated in its founder posting a late-night message on the page questioning why users would want to pay near full price for her company’s products.
“Why anyone would pay near to full price or full price sometimes plus postage for something second hand is crazy,” wrote Laura Tenison. “We don’t charge postage so you could get a new one for less!” The response from the group’s members was predictable, with the message being described variously as ‘incredibly rude’, ‘snotty’ and an ‘epic PR fail’.
Tenison’s response was rapid, contrite and relatable. “Late-night posting is never a good idea,” she said. “I had just come back from watching Trainspotting 2. I’m human and I made a mistake.”
She apologised to the group’s members in a subsequent post, “You are wrong if you think I am condescending towards this group. I LOVE IT. Of course it is up to you to pay what you like but I often see prices which are higher than our sale prices, plus you pay postage! I do think this is a bit daft – but it’s up to you and I accept none of my business.”
What we can learn: First of all, this example emphasises the importance of a robust social media approval process. No matter how important they think they are, company owners or CEOs should not be permitted to post personal messages in the name of the brand. Else why bother hiring a marketing team or agency?
However, if a big cheese does open a can of worms, it has to be their responsibility to close it. Bringing in the brand account to clean up the mess will only make it look like the boss is hiding – which will inevitably invite more criticism. Tenison handled it well, admitting to making a mistake in a way we can all relate to. She quelled the backlash and earned the group 4,000 new members in the process.
READ MORE: 11 ways to avoid a social media crisis
Other notable examples
Burberry: You would think fashion brands would know celebrities more than most, right? Not in Burberry’s case. The British luxury brand tweeted what they thought was actor Dev Patel wearing one of their suits. However, the image they actually used was of actor Riz Ahmed. The faux pas was made worse because both men have sub-continental origins, leading one user to accuse Burberry of thinking ‘all brown people look the same’. The company issued a public apology, and said they would be ‘checking our processes to make sure this doesn’t happen again’. One can only assume they were referring to their approval chain, which clearly failed them on this occasion.
British Airways: The British national carrier has previous with social media crises, but they clearly haven’t quite learned their lesson. The airline’s Facebook account somehow shared a post about visiting London from one of their major rivals – Virgin Atlantic. As if to make the situation worse, the post included two calls-to-action leading their audience right to their competitor’s website. Virgin understandably responded with delight, thanking their rivals and saying, ‘So kind of you to share!’. British Airways could have left it there, but their response was appropriately light-hearted considering the humourous tone of the error. They re-shared Virgin’s original post, this time with the comment, ‘Finally we agree on something expect for how to get there. #FlyBAtoLondon’.
Seoul Secret: What should have been a routine ad for a much-used beauty product created a global controversy. Skin-whitening products are popular in many Asian countries, but one company caused a storm with an online advertising campaign. Seoul Secrets shot an ad that showed an Asian woman turning black, to her apparent displeasure. A whiter version of the woman then says, “Just being white, you will win”. Even allowing for any cultural differences, the ad was always going to cause a storm. The company responded quickly, issuing a ‘heart-felt apology’ on their Facebook page, and removing all materials relating to the campaign. The damage may have been done, but the apology quelled the storm and no doubt lessons were learned.
HSBC: Any brand will tell you that communication is key – even more so when the issue in question is the delayed launch of a major new product. HSBC bank were supposed to be launch partners of Apple Pay when it came to the UK, only for launch day to come and go with no sign of HSBC. But rather than informing their customers in advance, the bank waited for their disgruntled users to start asking questions on social media. Brandwatch analysis (below) illustrated the depth of ill feeling caused by the incident. However, at least they learned their lesson: when they were finally ready to launch, they announced it to their Twitter followers 48 hours in advance.
Are there any other examples you would add?