4 Social Media Disasters to Avoid

Taking some time to craft a social media plan, rather than jumping on every trending topic, is one way to skirt online embarrassment.

Social media is an important marketing tool for small-business owners, helping them connect with customers and build their brand with ease. But that very ease of use can also lead to embarrassing – and potentially expensive – blunders. We dug up a few examples of high-profile social media screw-ups, along with some useful advice from marketing and public relations experts, to help you avoid making the same mistakes.

4 Social Media Disasters to Avoid

1. Going Head-to-Head with Haters
The internet is rife with stories of small-business owners directing profanity-laced screeds at customers who write one-star reviews of their establishments. Like the bar owner in Thousand Oaks, CA, who said a customer was a “lying, filthy pig” – among other less-printable epithets – in a Facebook message that went viral. Or the Denver restaurateur who called a 74-year-old woman nasty names after she panned his establishment on Yelp last year.

Perhaps the most famous example came in 2013, after the owners of Amy’s Baking Co. in Scottsdale, AZ, made an unforgettable appearance on Gordon Ramsay’s Fox hit Kitchen Nightmares. The hot-headed chef famously walked out on the belligerent couple. After the show aired, the owners unleashed an onslaught of insults on their Facebook page, calling their critics “little punks,” “oppressors” and “horrible people” in unhinged, all-caps rants. Owners Amy and Samy Bouzaglo became memes and the subject of countless Buzzfeed-style listicles, but all the negative publicity eventually took its toll, with the eatery permanently shuttered in 2015.

According to Ryan Sauers, president and owner of Sauers Consulting Strategies, the lesson in these scenarios can be summed up in a catchy acronym: SHALT. “Don’t post something if you’re sad, hungry, angry, lonely or tired,” he says. “There’s the danger on social channels that if you get mad or hot, you can just fire away. Once you’ve fired, you can delete your post, but with screenshots and servers, unfortunately, those words don’t go away.”

Still, the solution isn’t to ignore online complaints and bad reviews. Radio silence can be just as detrimental to a brand as social smack-downs. The best thing to do is get to the root of the issue, and do whatever you can to fix the situation, whether that involves providing a discount, refund or some other economic salve, says Dana Sidberry, owner of Motivational Marketing in Charlotte, NC. Be sure to document the resolution online, even if you have to go offline with the angry client to fix the situation. Whatever you do, don’t delete the complaint. “What’s actually going to count and what followers want to see is how you made the customer feel and how you fixed the situation,” Sidberry says. A deftly handled complaint could actually win you more fans if your followers see that you value your customers and take their feedback seriously, she adds.

It also doesn’t hurt to hit your happy customers up for positive reviews and testimonials to help drown out the negative, Sidberry notes.

2. Photo No-Nos
On July 4, 2014, an American Apparel employee posted a photo of spiraling billows of clouds to the brand’s Tumblr account, with the tags #smoke and #clouds. Followers were quick to point out that this wasn’t just the aftermath of some random fireworks, but rather an image of the Challenger space shuttle exploding – the 1986 tragedy that killed seven crew members, including a schoolteacher. The company quickly issued an apology, noting that the employee who had posted to Tumblr was born after the tragedy and unaware of the photo’s context.

At the 2016 Oscars, Total Beauty posted a photo of actress Whoopi Goldberg, with the following text: “We had no idea @Oprah was #tatted, and we love it.” The unfortunate tweet was on the beauty website’s feed for less than an hour, but it didn’t take long for users to pounce on the careless error.

Posting photos is a simple matter in the digital era: In a couple of seconds, with a few swipes, clicks and taps, you can find and publish just about any image you’d like. But, experts say, that doesn’t mean you should pull the trigger on content that quickly. Just like any other marketing medium, social media requires planning, strategy and someone with experience making the final decisions, says Julia Angelen Joy, a public relations consultant with Z Group PR. “The common thinking is that young people use tech and they’re really good at it, so we’ll put them in charge,” she says. “They don’t have the professional experience and years of wisdom that a more mature marketing person has. … Your overall strategy has to be filtered through a level of experience.”

She also notes that companies should be very wary of “skimming the internet” for photos of dubious origin, and instead make the small investment into a legitimate photo service. And, of course, taking a few extra minutes to fact-check and proof before posting these photos would have helped both brands avoid public embarrassment.

3. Catching Flak for Newsjacking
Back in 2011 at the height of the Egyptian Revolution, fashion designer Kenneth Cole tweeted “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” Two years later, the trolling trendsetter, unrepentant, tweeted the following, in response to the escalating conflict in Syria: “‘Boots on the ground’ or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear.” Also that year, the Golf Channel asked Twitter followers to share their “golf dreams” on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Other brands were hawking pink nail polish and stilettos on International Women’s Day, or touting their stock of air mattresses and generators in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Then, there are the companies that seem to view celebrity deaths as a marketing opportunity: When David Bowie died in 2016, Crocs posted the artist’s iconic lightning bolt symbol over one of their clogs. At the tail end of the year, when actress Carrie Fisher died, Cinnabon posted a photo of Princess Leia, swapping her bun for a cinnamon roll, with the message: “You’ll always have the best buns in the galaxy.”

It’s a phenomenon called “newsjacking.” Marketers put their own spin on the day’s headlines in an effort to boost social media engagement or go viral. Experts say it can be an effective tool, but too often, such posts come off as crass or insensitive and ultimately backfire. Instead of jumping on the bandwagon, first make sure that commenting on a news event fits in with your company’s core branding message, says Jackie Miller, chief marketing officer of Bozell, an Omaha advertising firm. “Is it a stretch?” she asks. “Are you forcing yourself into a trend, or is it organic? Does it make sense?” Whatever you do, don’t try to sneak a sales pitch into a tribute or make light of a serious situation, as in the examples above. “You never want to capitalize on a tragedy or a sad time,” Miller adds.

4. Hashtag Hijinks
Social media blunders involving hashtags typically come in two flavors. The first involves trying to work a trending tag into your messaging, without fully understanding its meaning. One of the most egregious examples of this occurred three years ago, after video surfaced of former NFL star Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens punching his then-fiancée; the subsequent victim-blaming sparked a discussion of domestic violence on Twitter, with thousands using the hashtag #WhyIStayed to post raw, heart-wrenching testimonials of the difficulties they faced ending abusive relationships. DiGiorno Pizza, on the other hand, posted “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.” The brand was lambasted, and within minutes DiGiorno deleted the tweet, admitting it wasn’t aware of the context before posting. To its credit, the brand reached out with personal apologies to each of the Twitter users who were offended; however, a few minutes of research before posting, and this embarrassment could easily have been avoided.

The other common hashtag hash-up involves those created by the brand itself to foster conversation. Encouraging engagement through custom, brand-related hashtags isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but “you have to make sure you have a way to moderate that conversation,” notes Joseph Torrillo, vice president of reputation management at Terakeet, a marketing and technology firm in Syracuse, NY. “You want to have some control.” Torrillo shares the example of JP Morgan, which back in 2013 sponsored the hashtag #AskJP on Twitter to facilitate a question-and-answer session between college students and a senior executive. Users barraged the brand with snarky and cynical questions, related to the financial crisis and the bank’s resulting legal woes. A custom hashtag “might seem like a good idea on the surface, but you always have to consider that alternate scenario and play devil’s advocate,” Torrillo says. “You’re creating a channel to connect with customers, [but it also] allows the disgruntled to congregate online and collectively create a movement against the company.”

Theresa Hegel is the executive editor of Wearables. Contact: thegel@asicentral.com; follow her on Twitter at @TheresaHegel.