Social media PR disasters and mistakes

Social media can be a double-edged sword.. how have some companies impaled themselves?
1 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

After September 11th, 2001, airports were required to undergo a rehaul of security and travel procedures that still frustrate many today.

However, if valuable baggage becomes damaged in the process and an airline proves unhelpful, patience can wear too thin.

Dave Carroll, a country singer from Canada, was flying with United Airlines in 2008 from Halifax to Chicago’s O'Hare Airport in order to reach Nebraska. With several members of his band, Sons of Maxwell, they watched in horror as their instruments were roughly moved by baggage handlers. Once the band were able to check for signs of damage, it was evident that Carroll's $3500 Taylor guitar was so badly damaged it was unplayable.

For almost a year, the musician attempted to get United Airlines to offer compensation. When this effort was obviously in vain, Carroll took to YouTube -- adding a lyrical edge to the battle. The video went viral, and the song ended up as an iTunes track -- now, it has reached nearly 12 million hits on YouTube, and a book deal has been reached.

United Airlines switched to damage control, apologizing and also offered to replace the damaged instrument. Instead, Carroll requested a donation to the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute -- of which the airline gave a total of $3,000.

2 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Someone with access to car manufacturer Chrysler's official Twitter account tweeted their disgust for Detroit drivers to thousands of followers. The message read:

"I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f**king drive."

The company quickly removed the tweet, apologizing that its account had been compromised and for any offence caused. Chrysler later confirmed the tweet's source was an employee of its social media agency, New Media Strategies. The individual in question was later "terminated" -- but it goes to show what can happen when a third pary has access to a company's social media account. 

3 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

The number of satirical and fake Twitter accounts mimicking companies or individuals is on the rise -- and ranges from the British Queen to PM David Cameron.

If one of these accounts go viral, within moments a company can find themselves the butt of social media jokes. The oil spill incident in the gulf of Mexico inspired one individual,

Mike Monterio, to broadcast his own thoughts on the oil company BP. The fake account, @BPGlobalPR, went viral after its launch -- spreading dark humor at BP's expense across the Internet.

To date, BP's official feed, @BP_America, has just over 38,000 followers... which doesn't hold a candle to the satirical version's 155,000.

See also: Sunday rant: social business? I'm still not buying it

4 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Denny's restaurant in the United States once printed thousands of menus for their dinner service -- with a misprint that confused many of its customers.

At the bottom, the menu invited you to "Join the conversation" by visiting its Twitter profile at twitter.com/dennys.

However, its actual profile name is @DennysDiner -- whereas @dennys actually belongs to a man living in Taiwan. Customers that loks up the profile were no doubt confused when they met tweets in Taiwanese.


5 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Domain registrar GoDaddy's CEO Bob Parsons released a video of himself shooting a "problem elephant" in Zimbabwe -- to the shock of the social media community and to the detriment of the business.

At best, the CEO could have chosen to limit the video to a privacy-secured Facebook profile. Instead, it was released on Twitter.

Even forgetting how creepy it is to outfit everyone in the village with Go Daddy baseball caps, the footage resulted in campaigns to Boycott Go Daddy -- later repeated by its public support of anti-piracy bill SOPA -- outrage from animal activist groups, and a social media backlash.

Parsons later defended himself on his blog, arguing that his target was a "problem elephant" that had been destroying crops that supported villagers. However, when you are a public figure, releasing such footage can do no good for the reputation of the company you represent.

See also: Controlling the uncontrollable: The inherent risks of social media


6 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Habitat UK is commonly associated with fabrics and upholstery, but came under fire when it decided to hijack hashtags to promote itself.

Hashtag are used in order to 'point' a tweet at a certain conversation. Examples include #edtech (educational technology), #jobs and #business. 

What Habitat decided to do, however, was hijack any hashtags that were trending on Twitter -- and therefore popular -- to market their products. From popular television show #Trueblood to the Iranian's elections' #MOUSAV tag, nothing was safe.

The online community condemned the company for its social media actions, and it was forced to apologise to the public.

See also: Gen-Y social media mistakes to avoid in a new business


7 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Fashion designer Kenneth Cole caused outrage with a politically insensitive tweet that many believed made light of the protests in Egypt. Perhaps it was nothing out of the common way in terms of pub talk, but as social media lacks tone and businesses need to be extremely careful with how they handle the platforms, it is no wonder the comment caused nothing but bad press.

The tweet read: "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online."

 After Twitter users reacted angrily to the message, Cole removed the offending tweet and issued an apology on his Facebook Page: 

“I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I’ve dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate. Kenneth Cole, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer”

See also: Politicians: Think before you tweet

8 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

A double-edged sword, if a public relations campaign goes well, it can be a positive and profitable result for a brand. However, once a corporation asks for input in a public arena, the scheme is fraught with risk.

A previous McDonald's Twitter campaign asked for users to contribute to the hashtag conversations #McStories and #MeetTheFarmer -- no doubt to try and collate positive experiences associated with the brand. What actually happened was the opposite, and an enormous social media storm struck the company.

McDonald's posted a YouTube video of Potato supplier Frank Martinez, in conjunction with a promoted (paid for) tweet that appeared in news feeds across the globe. The linked tweet read:

"When u make something w/pride, people can taste it," - McD potato supplier #McDStories

Within a day or so, a torrent of negative comments appeared through the hashtags, which only stopped once what seems like half the Twitterverse had pitched in.

See also: McDonald's #McStories gets 'supersized' with Twitter backlash

9 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

A Greenpeace campaign against palm oil policies that were considered 'unsustainable' dissolved into a row between the organization and Nestlé, which ended up spilling across multiple social networking platforms.

Greenpeace accused the corporation of advocating an unsustainable policy on their use of palm oil, which in turn meant it was damaging the rain forest. The reaction of social media followers was to post angry comments on the Nestlé Facebook fan page.

A mistake the corporation would commit in reaction to this negative exposure would result in antagonizing the issue further. It became defensive, and in the world of social media, attempting to quash outrage usually results in the opposite effect.

Without professional community channels and managers, the reaction of one (or several) company individuals damaged the brand in the eyes of social media users. Without a correct 'damage control' policy in place, the actual issue was forgotten, and Nestlé's customer service entered the spotlight.


10 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

In January 2009, student Alan Parsa found himself in need of a job while studying documentary film making at Chicago's Columbia College.

Like many students before him, he went online to try and find some work, and eventually stumbled across Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk -- promoted as the 'marketplace for work'.

One possible job caught Parsa's eye. Clicking on the link, the job description stated that payment would be given for writing 5/5 (100%) reviews for products manufactured by Belkin. Posters should also 'write the review as if they own the product' and 'thank the website for making you such a great deal'.

Dissatisfied with the dishonest nature of the work, the student quickly blogged about his findings, and it took mere hours to break across the Internet and go viral. The company were slow to respond to the story, and by the time Belkin's president issued an apology, the damage was already done.


11 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Bad PR is a strange thing. In new companies, it can generally be used as a learning curve, and damage control is possible. But what happens when a supposed PR 'expert' breaks out of the concept's core values and throws themselves to the mercy of the Twitterverse?

Mufadal Jiwaji used to work as a graduate trainee at Public Relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Tweeting about Grace Dent, TV Critic at the Guardian and restaurant reviewer for the London Evening Standard, he serves as a wonderful example of how not to blend PR and social media.

The Public Relations firm kept quiet about the Twitter conversation, but considering Jiwaji's swift apology, the lesson was quickly and painfully enforced.

See also: PR employee chastised for 'vulgar and puerile' tweet to journalist

12 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

At the same time a union dispute was in full swing, Australian airline Quantas decided to launch a Twitter competition offering a first-class gift pack and Quntas pajamas for its followers.

Using the hashtag #QuantasLuxury -- which is still active -- the airline asked Twitter users to send out this tag in order to enter the competition.

However, the users in question decided to hijack the tag for their own ends. Rapidly, the tag trended with complaints of delays, cancelations, and commentary on the union strike. 

Quantas has a reputation for generally responding well to individual tweets, but their marketing campaign was nothing if not ill-timed.


13 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

The Red Cross was left red-faced when their social media specialist Gloria Huang released a personal tweet on the company's Twitter profile by accident.

The tweet was noticed and taken down after an hour, but it had already been on the American Red Cross Twitter feed for some duration.

The social director of the organization, Wendy Harman, deleted the message following calls in the middle of the night. Huang later posted a message on her personal Twitter account to apologize -- blaming the error on her novice use of social media platform organizer Hootsuite.

14 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Blogger Jason Roe pointed out a flaw in the Ryanair website that made it possible for someone to book a flight and not be charged for it. Although the writer did not book a free flight himself, he wanted the error to be known -- and therefore wrote about the error in a post on his personal blog.

How did Ryanair react? In a priceless way more suitable for a juvenile Facebook row.


15 of 15 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

The Guardian is a well-respected news source in the UK, but it may wish to be more careful with what it re-tweets.

Screenshot taken earlier this year.

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