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19 Lessons from Social Media Misfires

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Big Brother is real—and you are Big Brother.

The character from George Orwell’s novel 1984 kept an eye on everyone and over the years has been used to symbolize governments and other entities that wish to control people by continually watching them.

But these days, social media make us all Big Brother: we watch the mistakes others make and tell the world about them. And that’s why both individuals and companies should analyze the following cases to turn mistakes into successes.

not connecting
#1 Not Connecting Proves Costly

Kelly Blazek created a job bank for professionals in marketing and publications in Cleveland. A young job seeker named Diana Mekota sent Blazek an invitation to connect on LinkedIn and received a stinging response from Blazek in return. Blazek basically told Mekota that her invitation was inappropriate and that Mekota had no right to expect her to share her 960+ contacts. Mekota posted Blazek’s response and it went viral. The negative response has basically driven Blazek into hiding, at least on social media.

Lessons Learned:

  • The public nature of social media communication calls for restraint and self-editing, always
  • LinkedIn is built for connections, not to tell people to go away
  • It’s fine to turn down a connection, but scolding a prospective contact is counterproductive, especially if you are scolding them for wanting to connect on a social network: this is like scolding someone for coming up to talk to you at a networking event
  • Connecting with someone on LinkedIn does not automatically give you access to their contacts, so Blazek cited a reason for not connecting that makes no sense

#2 Social Media on Autopilot Crashes
As part of a promotion, Oreo automatically replied with a programmed tweet to anyone who participated. This led to Oreo cheerfully replying to someone with a racist Twitter handle:


Obviously, the brand is not advocating racism, this is clear. But it’s the kind of poor brand alignment that’s fairly easy to avoid with a bit of forethought.

Lessons Learned:

  • Resist automation with social media interaction, even if your firm is doing it on a mass scale
  • A large-scale conversation via social media is still a conversation, and needs to be treated that way, with an organic approach

#3 Make Good Matches
In 2011, for some reason fashion brand Kenneth Cole decided to reference the uprising in Egypt:


Not surprisingly, it caused a backlash to relate the fashion brand’s spring collection to a revolution. The brand took a brief break, then in 2013, during the standoff with Syria, it posted:


In 2012, for some strange reason Gap decided to reference Hurricane Sandy:

gap tweet

Obviously, not a good idea to segue from a devastating storm to shopping at your brand’s web site.

Not to be outdone in the apparent insensitivity contest, Urban Outfitters also chimed in about the storm:

urban outiftters

Lesson Learned:

  • Think before you tweet, especially on hot trending topics
  • Political events or tragedies tend to deliver massive amounts of tweets, but this flood is NOT an opportunity to sell something, any more than a funeral is a good place to sell life insurance
  • Social media messages are more effective when pared to a customer’s needs or wants rather than forcibly piggybacked onto whatever news story is hot at the moment

#4 Nonsensical Comparisons
A Facebook update from London Luton indicated that they were such a good airport, planes don’t end up in the middle of streets:

london luton airport

This photo came after an accident at Midway Airport in which a plane slid off a runway. A six-year-old boy was killed.
So the comparison is between one airport that did not have an accident and one that did…as a differentiator? Yeah, not exactly the kind of USP that Philip Kotler is likely to recommend that a brand should highlight.

Lessons Learned:

  • Do not associate your brand with tragedy, ever
  • Do not associate your brand with a major fear among people being realized
  • Do not force me to write a tip that should be ragingly obvious

#5 Say It Strategically or Shut Up

A PR executive named Julie Sacco tweeted the following before heading off to Africa:

Justine Sacco

Some have argued that this was a self-deprecating joke with no racist intent, but this seems like a highly generous interpretation. Sacco tweeted this before getting on the plane and during the eight-hour flight, the firestorm developed as the tweet went viral. She ended up losing her job.

This tweet not only illustrates the risk of making a joke, it highlights another point. Why did Sacco have to tweet she was going on a trip to Africa at all? Why is this relevant? The point is, it seems like people feel compelled to share everything that happens to them, no matter how trivial. How many tweets have you read in which people tell you their current location or where they’re going later that day? Unless you have plans to meet them there, why would anyone care? The fact that we have the ability to communicate to an audience doesn’t mean we always have to say something. This is especially true with business communication via social media. Because what you say can backfire on your brand, you should be highly calculating with what you post and how it can reflect on the brand. That applies to personal social media if you are a public figure or have a communications position.

Amy’s Baking Company was featured on the TV show Kitchen Nightmares, in which chef Gordon Ramsay goes into failing restaurants, tells them what he thinks is wrong and tries to help them change. With Amy’s, the owners refused to admit anything was wrong and argued vociferously with Ramsay, so he gave up and left without trying to help. After the show aired, viewers made negative comments about the owner on the restaurant’s Facebook page, eliciting the following response:

amy's baking

This was part of an entire day of attacks and counterattacks via Facebook posts. Later, the restaurant’s owners claimed that their Facebook page was hacked, therefore hackers were behind the negative comments. Unusual behavior for hackers, who generally have not received lots of attention for impersonating businesses on social media. If it was not hackers, clearly a business that depends on the patronage of diners should avoid conflicts in public forums.

Lessons Learned:

  • Think carefully before making any joke on social media in a professional context: it’s easy to offend people and not easy to make peace afterwards
  • Treat social media jokes the way you’d treat jokes made in the presence of clients or prospective employers: stick to neutral ground, avoiding anything to do with race, politics, religion and disease
  • Don’t be trivial: use social media for substantive communications that either engage clients positively or further your brand’s positioning as per your strategy
  • Don’t go off the script: if you establish a goal for your social media communications and the approach for handling them, never deviate, whether it’s for fun or some other reason, because consistency is key to effective communication
  • Even when you’re off, you are on: If your job is in the public eye or you handle communications for a firm, even your personal social media communications can reflect badly on your brand (and your career), so edit yourself accordingly
  • A polite, constructive response to criticism on social media is much more productive than an angry post
  • Another way to respond to online critiques on a Facebook page would be to invite just the critics to a special meal or sale or some other kind of interaction with the business to experience the service or enjoy the product: this shows a gracious attitude, has a minimal cost and could have strong public relations value

When not observing social media mistakes that brands make and doing our best to avoid making mistakes ourselves, US Media Consulting links brands to Latam through insightful media planning and buying, as well as through innovative technological solutions like MediaDesk, our DSP. To find out more how we can help you reach Latin America with these and other approaches, please contact us.

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