Social engagement gone bad

Digital media expert Amy Thompson on PR disasters and how to avoid them using social media tools.

With companies increasing their social presence and upping their game in terms of consumer engagement, it’s no wonder we’ve seen a few ‘PR disasters’ in the past year.

Take the recent hashtag hijacking experienced by Waitrose as an example. The upmarket supermarket chain asked people to finish the sentence: “I shop at Waitrose because… #WaitroseReasons”, which spurred an onslaught of tongue-in-cheek responses that poked fun at its middle class image. Others commended the campaign, hailing it a triumph – after all, it’s not every day your hashtag goes viral.

Whether you see the backlash of Tweets as a negative or a stroke of marketing genius, Waitrose took it in good humour, thanking users for their ‘genuine and funny Tweets’.

Whilst some might say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, I’m not so sure McDonald’s would agree after their #McDstories catastrophe back in January.

Looking to promote their use of fresh produce and the people behind it, they Tweeted under #MeetTheFarmers. All went according to plan until they introduced the more general (and soon to be viral) #McDstories. The Twitterverse responded, reporting horror stories of finding fingernails in food, severe food poisoning and projectile vomiting.

McDonalds was quick to admit the campaign had gone awry and forced them to ‘change course’, reverting to the initial hashtag, which managed to slip by unscathed.

The same cannot be said of Femfresh and their Facebook crisis, which resulted in the brand taking down their page after a barrage of complaints flooded their wall when they carried their ‘fun’ (and patronising) tone of voice onto the platform.

Instead of addressing the issue at hand, the brand posted the holding comment “we’re listening and considering a response”, which only served to fuel the fire further, users saw it as a sign of weakness and continued to inundate the page until things came to a head and the brand admitted defeat.

With these tales of misfortune in mind, the social landscape can seem scary; after all, it only takes one post to be taken out of context or for one comment to slip through the net for a social crisis to ensue. But fear not, here are my tips on how to handle a social media disaster:

Know your brand AND your audience.

Before embarking on a social campaign get to know your brand inside and out; highlight strengths and weaknesses and anyway that they could be used to your disadvantage.

Remember the main thing in any social campaign is audience participation. Put yourself in your consumers shoes and think your campaign through, explore every possible avenue and outcome.

Plan for the worst

Compile a worst-case scenario strategy. Foresee any issues that could arise and plan how you’re going to respond. Look at other campaigns and how they went wrong and then learn from their mistakes. Plan your post-disaster content; choose how (and when) to contain the problem.

Be prepared to weather the storm

Once the grey clouds start brewing, there’s not a lot you can do but sit and wait it out. Be prepared to take a beating.

Don’t ignore it in the hope it’ll go away

Don’t try and brush over the problem at hand, address it before posting anything new. Put your worst-case scenario strategy into practice.

Keep calm and carry on

Release a positive statement letting people know you’ve heard what they have to say and have taken their comments on board. Show confidence, be sincere and don’t do what Femfresh did and admit defeat.

Learn, learn, learn

Social media is always changing, as such so should your social strategy. All you can do is learn from your mistakes (and those of others) and use them to help ‘future proof’ your brands online activities.

Amy Thompson is head of digital at creative agency DDCA in Newcastle