Published on Sep 01,2017
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In a world dominated by social media, a brand’s Facebook or Twitter page is often the voice that rings out to millions of fans and customers. This can be a boon – brands now have easy, one-to-one access to their customers, something that traditional marketing channels cannot provide – but it also comes with the grave responsibility of ensuring that the brand’s image is not tarnished by a social media gaffe. A blunder on social media can result in a global PR disaster for a brand and can permanently damage its reputation. It is therefore of utmost importance that brands practice great caution when posting on social media. A brief examination of recent gaffes can teach all of us a few lessons and help avoid such social media catastrophes.

1. DiGiorno Pizza

For brands on Twitter, trending hashtags are like the biggest, flashiest exhibits in a parade; everybody wants to be seen on it and leverage its brief popularity before it passes and a new exhibit comes along. Associating themselves with a popular hashtag allows the brand to reach a greater audience and an opportunity to pick up new followers. While this unbridled reverence of trending hashtags is understandable, it can make them come across as desperate and even insensitive if not done right.

A cringe-worthy example is DiGiorno Pizza, a US-based frozen pizza company. Last year, they decided to join the conversation around the trending hashtag #WhyIStayed, which unbeknownst to them, was related to women who’d suffered from domestic violence sharing their reasons for not leaving their abusers. DiGiorno’s contribution to this serious conversation about a burning social issue? “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.”
DiGiorno publicly apologized through their Twitter page but the damage was already done. One single tweet drew the ire of the entire Twitter population and soon it was a genuine PR disaster. But DiGiorno’s failings can teach us something important. As a rule, try to avoid jumping on the hashtag bandwagon without first understanding the context in which the conversation is taking place. Everybody knows that Twitter moves at an incredibly fast pace, but it only takes a few minutes to grasp what the hashtag is about.

2. American Apparel

Public holidays are a great platform for brands to market themselves. Last year, as Americans celebrated their Independence Day, clothing brand American Apparel tried to stoke the patriotic flame by posting a picture of fireworks on their Tumblr page with the hashtags #Smoke and #Clouds.
As it turned out, the picture they’d posted wasn’t really of fireworks but rather a shot of the space shuttle Challenger exploding mid-air way back in 1986. Needless to say, the furore over this gaffe was terrible, but more curious was American Apparel’s response. After apologizing for the mistake, they passed the blame to an employee who was born after the tragedy and was unaware of what the image represented.

In American Apparel’s case, there was no rush to join the hashtag bandwagon; they would have had plenty of time to prepare their tweets for Independence Day. But somehow an ignorant employee was able to tweet an image completely unrelated to the occasion and moreover, an image of a horrific tragedy. It represents the brand’s failure to properly plan out its marketing strategy in advance, incompetence on the part of the employees who didn’t do their due diligence, and a startling lack of oversight that could have prevented this entire embarrassing episode. All of these are valuable lessons to remember for brands who want to avoid the mockery and ridicule that American Apparel faced.

3. McDonald’s

One of the most well-recognized brands in the world, McDonald’s decided to launch a Twitter campaign in which the brand’s mascot, Ronald McDonald would start tweeting. A seemingly innocuous attempt to promote the brand then turned into a large-scale mud-slinging exercise with everybody, from poorly paid McDonald’s workers to animal rights activists, lambasting McDonald’s using their very own #RonaldMcDonald hashtag. Needless to say, the entire episode resulted in a huge embarrassment for McDonald’s.

It is important for brands to realize that the free and open nature of the internet doesn’t allow them to dictate the narrative of their campaigns. Once you ask people to join in on the conversation, you cannot control what they’re going to say. Brands must never lose sight of this fact and design their campaigns in such a way that similar embarrassments don’t befall them.

These lessons should help you avoid glaring social media gaffes, but if you still find yourself in the middle of one, the following tips should help you deal with the fallout :

  1. Acknowledge the fact that you’ve made a mistake and apologize immediately. Moreover, your apology shouldn’t come across as hurried or insincere; the social media populace is keenly perceptive when brands try to apologize without really meaning it.
  2. Take the criticism that comes your way graciously. The more you try to stifle negative criticism, the more effort people will put in to criticise your brand. Moreover, it makes your brand appear to be supportive of censorship, something that the internet will never forgive you for.
  3. And finally, you must assure your followers that you’re getting to the root of the issue and taking steps to fix it. Don’t brush it under the carpet; use the experience to learn from your mistakes so you don’t repeat them in the future.

The social media world is fast-paced, chaotic and often times brutal. Brands need to act with care and prudence when they participate in it, otherwise risk being ostracized for their carelessness. A patient, measured approach to social media is thus the best way to avoid embroiling your brand in an embarrassing gaffe.

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