Social media has changed marketing forever. Everyone from the biggest brands in the world to the local mom-and-pop shops are on social media these days. Not only is social media a great opportunity to build a following, but it also gives businesses a way to reach and interact with more people than ever before.
However, social media’s huge reach can be a double-edged sword because not only can you broadcast your successes to millions (potentially), but any mistakes can spread equally as fast. But as the saying goes, failure is a better teacher than success, and what better way to learn than from others’ mistakes instead of your own?
So let’s take a look at some common social media mistakes, failures, and PR disasters to learn how to avoid them so your business doesn’t end up going viral in all the wrong ways!
1. Celebrity endorsements gone bad
Getting a high-profile influencer or celebrity to advertise or endorse your brand can do a lot for your company. A celebrity ambassador can help you do everything from building brand awareness, creating instantly memorable ads, and making people associate your brand with wealth, power, beauty, or success.
But there’s a potential downside of aligning too closely with someone famous and it’s more than the risk of their star power overshadowing you and making it all about them instead of your partnership. The biggest risk of these types of brand deals is if your famous spokesperson gets caught up in a scandal that damages their image in the public eye because that can bleed over and hurt your brand’s reputation as well.
There are too many examples of this than we can count, especially in this era of social media, and you can probably think of at least a few examples off the top of your head. But in these situations, there are often many aspects in play which means the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.
So if your company is ever caught up in a situation like this, how fast you react and what you say heavily depends on the following factors:
What happened in the scandal?
A celebrity who built their image off of being a trustworthy family man being suddenly revealed as a serial cheater is going to be seen much differently than a comedian who’s known for edgy material saying something offensive.
It all depends on your brand’s tolerance for controversial behavior, but there are cases that all brands should take a hard line against, such as discrimination or hate speech, abusive behavior, and sexual harassment.
One of the first things brands do during these kinds of endorsement scandals is trying to verify if the allegations are true. When it’s as easy as finding an old social media post or screenshots of it, brands can act swiftly but in other cases, it may take more time. Just keep in mind that the court of public opinion often demands an immediate response, so many brands will err on the side of caution and cut ties at even the first whiff of any scandal.
How did the celebrity react?
Another key part in these situations is how the celebrities themselves react. If they issue an immediate apology and work to make amends, that will be taken a lot more positively than someone who doubles down and refuses to apologize.
For those that show remorse, it may even leave the door open for the brand partnership to continue, assuming the transgression was a mistake and nothing too serious, but ultimately, that’s up to the brand to decide.
What is the public sentiment and will they forgive?
Social media makes it easier than ever to read the room and get an idea of how the public feels about the scandal, and companies can use this to guide their reaction and minimize potential fallout.
After all, one-time transgressions are much more likely to be forgiven than long-established patterns of bad behavior, and there’s also the aspect of how much public goodwill that particular celebrity has built up over the years. People are a lot more likely to forgive the celebrities they like and punish the ones they don’t.
Social media is an easy way for companies to quickly check public sentiment regarding a news story. Most companies and brands already monitor their mentions on social media, but you can also take it one step further by using tools for sentiment analysis, which is sometimes referred to as ‘opinion mining’.
Takeaway: Companies need to respond quickly to social media crises
According to Harvard Business Review, research has shown that firms that make no public statement and take no action generally do poorly, while companies that are proactive and handle it well often come out ahead in the long run.
Even if it causes a lot of short-term pain, a swift and definitive response can help brands avoid long-term damage. These types of situations are often a huge test to see if companies actually live up to the values they preach like diversity, inclusion, mutual respect, and fairness, or if they’re willing to let all of that slide when millions of dollars are on the line.
Don’t be the type of company that stays silent, enduring major reputational damage, only to eventually end the partnership anyways after getting dragged online for weeks because gaining back that trust and respect will be a long, uphill battle.
2. Getting too defensive on social media
When it comes to social media, sometimes it’s better to hold your tongue and not say anything at all, such as when your industry is facing backlash for high prices or disproportionately contributing to climate change. And if your company becomes the face of everything wrong with your industry, it can be very tempting to go on social media to defend yourself.
We get it, it’s often a knee-jerk reaction to want to set the story straight, but you should be very careful of the optics because going too hard on defending yourself because that can cause significant backlash on its own by making your company look overly defensive or worse, tone deaf and out-of-touch.
Accepting criticism is part of being a company on social media, and if you can’t handle it constructively and respond in a similar manner, sometimes silence really is the best decision.
Like if we’re facing unprecedented inflation and your company is experiencing record profits, let people vent a bit, even if your company is in the crosshairs for being so successful during a time when many people are suffering.
Going on the offense and fighting this perception can alienate a lot of customers.
Takeaway: Read the room first
Maybe aggressively defending yourself while your company is experiencing record profits while others are struggling to make ends meet isn’t a good look. That’s why it’s important to read the room and keep in mind that showing a little honesty, empathy, or solidarity (as long as it comes off naturally) can go a long way toward deflecting negative criticism and preventing people from getting too angry at your brand.
3. Funny hashtag fails
There are plenty of funny hashtags and the biggest reason why it happens comes down to a lack of review and double-checking. But we get it – sometimes you can get so caught up in a new name or hashtag that you almost get tunnel vision, or you get so attached to one you like it’s hard to come up with or consider anything else. It happens.
But that’s why it’s so important to get an outsider’s perspective, especially in these situations. Not only can it help you see things from a different perspective, but it can also illuminate things about what you’re currently doing that you completely missed!
The nature of social media and hashtags in particular has led to an interesting phenomenon where spaces don’t exist, quite literally. The same thing goes for punctuation, too. And the way that hashtags cram all the words together without spaces or punctuation increases the chances of misunderstandings or hilariously unintentional meanings, and the longer the hashtag, the more likely that is.
Even well-known hashtags like #photooftheday can make people wonder what’s a “photo of the day?” if they’re not familiar with it.
The same thing also applies to account names that remove the spaces, although you get a bit more freedom with names because many platforms allow some forms of punctuation such as underscores and even emojis.
Takeaway: Double-check names and hashtags for unintentional meanings
To avoid issues like this, we recommend capitalizing the first letter of each word to improve readability while also discouraging any unintentional meanings or misunderstandings, especially if you’re using a longer hashtag.
Meanwhile, if your hashtag is shorter, like 1-3 words, this usually isn’t necessary. But let’s take a look at this rule of capitalizing longer hashtags in action with the following hashtag:
Notice how much easier the second one is to read? (Although we recommend you generally avoid having hashtags this long for the sake of readability.)
As an added tip, it’s also important to consider all of the potential ways that your new name or hashtag could be read (or misread) because even if you make it super clear, if there’s any room for a funny misunderstanding, you know people on the internet will make jokes about it. It’s like an unwritten rule at this point.
One last word of advice: Don’t blame the intern for social media fails
Although it may be very tempting, don’t blame the intern for any social media fails, even if it was their fault. For one, throwing someone under the bus in such a public way is never a good look. And if it really was the intern’s fault, that could speak to greater underlying problems in the organization when it comes to oversight, training, or policy – or more accurately, a failure to have it at all.
Blaming the intern will inevitably bring up questions like “Why was the intern in charge of the company’s or client’s social media profiles in the first place?” and “What was the oversight and approval process?”. These are all questions that you don’t want people asking as it indicates a loss of trust because people are now questioning your organization’s reputation, competency, and credibility.
Social media is an amazing tool for companies as it allows them to connect with customers and get their messaging out like never before. But with any tool, it’s important to be aware of the risks so you can prevent accidents or mistakes and also respond appropriately if they do happen.
That’s why companies should exercise caution when it comes to celebrity endorsements, responding to negative feedback, and creating new hashtags – three common areas where companies sometimes misstep. But taking a proactive approach will help you mitigate the risks of social media so you don’t want to end up going viral for the wrong reasons.
Segal, E. (2022, October 25). Adidas Responds to its Kanye West Crisis. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsegal/2022/10/25/how-brands-are-responding-to-their-celebrity-related-crises/?sh=4879b2eb4221.
Weiss, G. & Chen, T. (2022, December 27). From Tampax’s eye-raising tampon tweets to Burger King’s Pride buns, the 7 biggest social media fails by brands in 2022. Insider. https://www.insider.com/brands-biggest-social-media-fails-2022-pbr-burger-king-2022-12
When Scandal Engulfs a Celebrity Endorser. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/05/when-scandal-engulfs-a-celebrity-endorser.