Social media may be an essential tool for building a brand’s following, but it can just as quickly become a liability when something goes wrong. Whether it’s a well-meaning tweet that backfires, an image that makes people cringe, or a company account that gets in the wrong hands, few brands have managed to navigate social media over the past few years entirely unscathed.
Below, we’ve highlighted stories of some of the top corporate social media fails, broken down by category.
- The Wrong Access
- Mishandled Responses
- Misguided Campaign
- Didn’t Know What They Were Posting
- Don’t Promote Your Competitor
- Accidental Overshare
- Didn’t Check The Hashtag
- Didn’t Monitor Their Auto Tweets
- Tried To Co-opt A Serious Event
- Offensive Campaign
- Honorable Mention
The Wrong Access
Social media is such a fluid, always-on world that many social media professionals tweet for work using their personal devices when necessary. On top of that, larger operations often have entire teams of people with access to social media accounts. Making sure you’ve switched from your work to personal account, taking access away from people who are no longer with the company, and making sure all accounts are secure are vital parts of protecting your company from gaffes like these.
Closing a department is never easy, but if one of the people losing their jobs has access to the company Twitter account, you definitely want to make sure that you change the password before the severance checks get handed out. These tweets and others like them were posted by a former HMV employee who was hit hard by a wave of terminations in 2013. Usually when someone does something like this on social media, they get fired. Obviously, though, that had already been taken care of.
Even after a great week of work, most of us are happy to get out of the office. But whoever was running the StubHub Twitter feed one fateful Friday afternoon in 2012 must have had a particularly rough day when they tweeted this out.
Someone working for Chrysler’s social media team apparently had a case of road rage turned social media rage and tweeted out an off-color message denigrating Detroit’s drivers from Chrysler’s official account.
The 2016 US presidential election and its fallout has proven a divisive issue, so when IHOP retweeted the above post regarding Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it provoked a range of reactions. The pancake house quickly removed the post and claimed that their account had been hacked.
In March of 2017, McDonald’s tweeted an explicitly political post from its official account and briefly pinned it to the top of their page. It was quickly taken down, but managed to rack up over 1,000 likes and retweets, as well as garnering reactions from angry Trump supporters rallying behind the short-lived #BoycottMcDonalds hashtag. McDonald’s issued an apology and claimed that their account had been “hacked by an outside source.”
It’s important to reach out to displeased customers and do spin control after unfavorable news coverage. But sometimes that outreach only fans the flames further or digs a brand further into the hole.
Even a modern, social media-savvy service like Tinder can sometimes go off-message. In the wake of a critical Vanity Fair article that said Tinder was only for hookups, the brand launched a Twitter rant, with a series of tweets aimed at discounting the article’s findings. Instead, the outbursts only served to heighten the story’s publicity.
The documentary Blackfish had an extremely negative impact on SeaWorld, so in 2015, the embattled theme park took to Twitter to try to drive engagement and win back fans with the hashtag #AskSeaWorld. Animal rights activists took to Twitter and rebelled with the hashtag #EmptyTheTanks.
Things have not been going well for Kmart for quite some time (a merger with Sears hasn’t helped matters), so maybe opening extra early on Black Friday in 2013 seemed like a chance to turn things around. Alas, the internet didn’t see it that way, and reacted to the retailer’s announcement with criticism that they were denying their retail employees a proper Thanksgiving. The economic and social issues surrounding situations like this one are complex, but Kmart chose to sidestep a nuanced discussion in favor of endlessly responding to criticisms with a repeated refrain about “giving [seasonal associates and others the] opportunity to make extra money …” You can’t always solve every PR issue in 140 characters or less, but repeating the same phrase over and over again probably is never going to win over the crowd.
When a patron, who was also a pastor, declined to tip an Applebee’s server and instead left a note saying “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” a fellow server posted the image to social-sharing site Reddit. Once on Reddit, people became predictably riled up at the server getting stiffed. Consumer affairs blog The Consumerist then picked up the story the following day and the outrage spilled over onto Applebee’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. Applebee’s itself might have stayed immune from the drama had they not posted on Facebook a day after the fiasco to let their followers know that the server who’d posted the image had been fired for violation of a consumer’s privacy.
By 2:53 a.m. the following morning, there were over 17,000 comments on the post, with people outraged that the server had been let go. Applebee’s spent hours deleting negative posts, which only made people angrier.
Applebee’s kept digging itself an even deeper hole by engaging in a series of back-and-forths with commenters trying to defend its actions before finally writing its last status update on the situation and then ultimately letting the situation die out.
Sometimes a social media post might seem like a good idea on paper, but when it makes it to the internet, it all falls apart.
Using social media to wade into complicated political or social issues is almost sure to result in blowback, no matter how earnest the campaign is meant to be. In March 2015, Starbucks launched a seemingly genuine attempt to start a conversation about race relations with the hashtag #RaceTogether. The results were overwhelmingly negative, though, with a sizable number of responses even classified as “hate,” according to AdWeek, as well as some that used the hashtag to point the finger back at Starbucks.
Didn’t Know What They Were Posting
The internet knows all, so if you make a mistake, someone’s going to catch it. Here are cases where the people handling these social media accounts didn’t know what they were posting—and others quickly corrected them.
In 2014, a supposedly non-US-born member of American Apparel’s social media team posted an image of smoke from an explosion to celebrate the Fourth of July. But almost immediately, people recognized the photo as the iconic image of the Challenger explosion and responded with shock and disapproval. AA brought down the image and issued an apology, but still received some more negative responses from outraged commentators.
During the 2014 World Cup, the US defeated Ghana 2-1. Delta Airlines, in their zeal to seize the moment and promote their flights to Ghana’s capital, Accra, posted the game’s final score with an image of the Statue of Liberty behind the US score and an image of a giraffe behind Ghana’s score. The twist? Giraffes don’t live in Ghana.
When Wendy’s tweeted that they used only “fresh, never frozen” beef, a Twitter user contested the claim, and the company entered into a “sassy” back and forth that eventually attracted the attention of other users looking to get a rise out of the venerable burger company. Things took an unexpected turn when another user asked Wendy’s “got any memes?” Wendy’s replied with a version of Pepe the Frog made up to look like their iconic mascot, which they promptly deleted, as Pepe has recently been associated with racist sentiments.
Don’t Promote Your Competitor
When launching a social media campaign, it’s always a good idea to remember which brand you’re meaning to promote, and not accidentally give your competitor free publicity.
We all love a good deal, but you should probably make sure you don’t get so excited you accidentally promote a competitor’s sale. British Airways mistakenly shared a Virgin Atlantic Facebook post advertising nonstop flights to London with Virgin’s tagline “There’s never been a better time to visit London.” The misstep was pointed out by a British Airways fan and Virgin was quick to rub salt in the wound by tweeting out a thank you saying: “Thanks British Airways! So kind of you to share!” They also used the hashtags #onethingweagreeon #flyvirginatlantic. BA tried to rebound by editing their old post with “Finally we agree on something except for how to get there. #FlyBAtoLondon.”
The person in charge of LG’s French Twitter account sent out the following tweet playing off of consumers’ fears that the new iPhone 6 would bend and break in their pockets. The French translated text reads, “Our smartphones don’t bend, they are naturally curved.” The rub: the English at the bottom reads “via Twitter for iPhone.” Ay!
Apparently promoting a competitor on social media is a workplace hazard for smartphone companies. When musician Alicia Keys came on board at Blackberry as Global Creative Director, she declared herself to be all in on the company’s signature handheld. Her first tweet celebrating her new position, however, noted that it came from an iPhone. That’s embarrassing, but might have been quickly smoothed over with an apology and some tweets from a Blackberry. Instead, Keys made an unsubstantiated claim that her account had been hacked.
You think an accidental reply-all at work is bad? Imagine tweeting what was supposed to be a private message to all your followers.
Apparently Twitter CFO Anthony Noto meant to send a DM discussing a possible acquisition, but he hit the tweet button instead, telling all his followers about it and adding, “I have a plan.” No word yet on what that plan was/is.
Didn’t Check The Hashtag
There are a lot of ways to do Twitter wrong, but using a hashtag without knowing what it means should be one of the easiest mistakes to avoid.
In the first tweet above, cake-maker Entenmann’s seemed to unknowingly use the hashtag referencing the verdict of the 2011 trial of Casey Anthony. The court’s ruling of “not guilty” was very controversial and followers of the case took to social media to express their outrage. The company realized their mistake and tweeted an apology.
Didn’t Monitor Their Auto Tweets
Automated tweets can help save time, but when a PR crisis hits or an offensive or offended customer takes to social to engage with a brand, it’s best to make sure you’re checking in and making sure a bot isn’t getting you into trouble.
New England Patriots
As the Patriots’ Twitter feed neared one million users, they set up an auto-response to thank their fans as they became Twitter followers. The error came when they automatically thanked a user with a racist name, retweeting the offensive Twitter handle in the process. The team realized its mistake and issued this apology.
When American Airlines merged with US Airways in April of 2015, they created the largest airline company in the world and updated their automated tweets to reflect their excitement over it. Unfortunately, the system was unable to differentiate between friendly and unfriendly tweets and ended up thanking a user for a message that was anything but complimentary.
When British supermarket chain Tesco came under fire for selling beef burgers contaminated with horse meat, the company had to quickly begin fighting off allegations and attempt to regain consumer trust. That’s why “hit the hay” might not have been the best idiom to use in this automated message that went out at the end of the day.
Tried To Co-opt A Serious Event
It’s always nice to stay relevant since a brand that harnesses major events effectively can earn a lot of visibility. But choosing the right one and highlighting it in a respectful manner is critical.
We all love to use powerful quotes on our social media feeds, but it’s important that the situation warrants the message. The Seahawks learned this the hard way back in 2015, when they overlayed words from MLK over an image of a crying Russel Wilson. Twitter didn’t care for the use of a decades-long civil rights struggle to celebrate the Seahawks getting into the Super Bowl. The team later deleted the tweet and issued an apology.
Yes, people might be likely to stay in during large-scale weather events like Hurricane Sandy, but that doesn’t make it the perfect time for online shopping. During the storm, The Gap issued the tweet above, made extra tone-deaf by how many people lost power during and after the storm.
During the 2011 protests in Egypt, the fashion company issued a tweet tying their new spring collection to the Arab Spring, making the brand look both out of touch and insular.
There are a lot of ways to offend someone on social media, but these were campaigns that should have been flagged well before they made their way to Twitter, Facebook, and the like.
Fashion brand Vera Bradley’s recent ad campaign invited users to share their favorite things about being a girl using the hashtag #itsgoodtobeagirl, with examples like “giving and receiving compliments on a cute tote” and “that moment when a gentleman offers you his seat” (featured on a subway advertisement). Commenters on Twitter declared the campaign retrograde and sexist, harkening back to a 1950s-era trivializing of the female experience.
Someone on KFC Australia’s social media team went a bit too far with the NSFW sexual innuendo when it sent out an image of a man and woman with areas of the photo blurred out and the tweet “Something hot and spicy is coming soon.” In less than an hour the post racked up 1,300 retweets. Then came a healthy dose of Twitter outrage, followed by the brand deleting the tweet. The big reveal? New “Hot & Spicy” chicken products.
International pancake purveyor IHOP issued insensitive tweets using offensive body tropes to describe its signature pancakes. The brand got called out on Twitter, removed the tweets, and issued an apology, calling the tweets “dumb and immature.”
In 2015, Bic South Africa tweeted a pic advising women to “Think like a man,” a suggestion that does little to further the goal of gender equality. Two factors made the situation especially bad: First, the campaign rolled out during South Africa’s Women’s Day holiday. Then Bic tried to defend the campaign with a half-apology in which it tried to justify itself, saying, “We can assure you that we meant it in the most empowering way possible and in no way derogatory towards women.” One lesson for all social media professionals: when you mess up, apologize and move on.
While not a full-fledged disaster, Burger King’s “Whopper Sacrifice” promotion on Facebook did result in a bit of a kerfuffle and was ultimately pulled down faster than planned. The scheme involved getting users to remove 10 Facebook friends in return for a coupon for a free Whopper burger. The kicker? When the 10 friends were selected and removed, they received a message saying that they’d been cut loose for a burger. Users severed ties with about 234,000 “friends” in a matter of days before privacy concerns from Facebook put an end to the campaign.
Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments.
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