When companies screw up on social media, the consequences can be crippling. An offensive tweet can mean boycotts, lost followers, or a tarnished reputation.
While we’d love to believe that major companies have interns handling their Twitter accounts, that’s simply not true—these days, most larger businesses employ highly paid social media managers to keep their brands in perfect shape.
Of course, nobody’s perfect, and mistakes happen. Hey, it’s difficult to predict how Twitter users will respond to a clever tweet or hashtag. When a tweet turns disastrous, brands need to react quickly in order to save face, and in most cases, that means deleting the offending tweet and issuing a quick apology.
Unfortunately for those companies, nobody forgets anything on the internet. For instance…
1. #McDStories leads to real McDonald’s stories.
The idea behind the hashtag: People love McDonald’s. Why not give them a chance to share their great experiences with the brand via a simple hashtag? Surely they’ll cooperate and post a stream of endless positivity about the world’s most famous fast-food brand.
Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day #McDStories http://t.co/BoNIwRJS
— McDonald’s (@McDonalds) January 18, 2012
The problem: McDonald’s isn’t popular with everyone. When the brand introduced #McDStories in 2012, Twitter users immediately used it to complain about the company.
“Hospitalized for food poisoning after eating McDonalds in 1989,” one user wrote. “Never ate there again and became a vegetarian. Should have sued.”
I used to like McDonalds. I stopped eating McDonalds years ago because every time I ate it I felt like I was dying inside. #McDStories
— Jeff Stokes (@DigitalStokes) January 23, 2012
The campaign was a classic example of “hashtag hijacking,” which occurs when the Twitter hive mind doesn’t agree with a company’s carefully designed marketing plan.
“#mcdstories did not go as planned,” McDonald’s social media director Rick Wion wrote in a statement to Business Insider. “We quickly pulled #mcdstories and it was promoted for less than two hours.”
“Within an hour of pulling #McDStories the number of conversations about it fell off from a peak of 1,600 to a few dozen. It is also important to keep those numbers in perspective. There were 72,788 mentions of McDonald’s overall that day so the traction of #McDStories was a tiny percentage (2%) of that.”
The statement concluded by noting that the McDonald’s social media team had a plan in place for when things went wrong, so the debacle in no way showed that they had made an awful, awful mistake.
“With all social media campaigns, we include contingency plans should the conversation not go as planned. The ability to change midstream helped this small blip from becoming something larger.”
In other words, they handled it masterfully, so stop criticizing them. Stop it. Stop it now.
2. #AskSeaWorld quickly turns into a PR nightmare.
The idea behind the hashtag: Give Twitter users a chance to ask questions about the animals in SeaWorld theme parks. People will learn a thing or two about aquatic life, and SeaWorld will sell a few more tickets. What could go wrong?
You Ask. We Answer. Learn more at http://t.co/vWEg4z67C8 pic.twitter.com/spCG5iaBhQ
— SeaWorld (@SeaWorld) March 23, 2015
The problem: SeaWorld had a fairly decent reputation in the ‘90s, but these days, the brand has suffered for its alleged mistreatment of animals. The documentary Blackfish raised questions about SeaWorld’s use of captive orcas in theatrical performances, and in 2016, the company agreed to stop breeding them in captivity.
The #AskSeaWorld hashtag launched in 2015, however, when the company’s controversial orca program was still in place. The hashtag was quickly hijacked by animal rights activists (and smarmy Twitter comedians).
@SeaWorld Dear SeaWorld, what would it feel like for your employees to be confined in a tank for their whole lives?
— CrisPaixão (@VeggieVeganBr) March 25, 2015
Since SeaWorld announced plans to phase out its theatrical orca performances, the company has recovered somewhat, with attendance improving significantly in 2018 for the first time in years. Still, a quick Google search for an innocuous phrase like “SeaWorld facts” brings up dozens of links from animal rights organizations—not happy stories of visits to the company’s theme parks. Maybe another #AskSeaWorld campaign will help them recover.
3. KitchenAid’s social media person forgets to log out.
The idea behind the tweet: Why shouldn’t a major appliance company weigh in on the outcome of the 2008 presidential election?
The problem: We just checked, and we can say with total confidence that no person on the planet cares what anyone at KitchenAid thinks about politics. Furthermore, the tweet in question was incredibly offensive.
The tweet, which has since been deleted for incredibly obvious reasons:
For reference, Barack Obama’s grandmother died several days before the 2008 election. KitchenAid quickly apologized to Obama and his family.
I would like to personally apologize to President @BarackObama, his family and everyone on Twitter for the offensive tweet sent earlier.
— KitchenAid (@KitchenAidUSA) October 4, 2012
“It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won’t be tweeting for us anymore,” Cynthia Soledad, senior director at KitchenAid, said via tweets.
It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won't be tweeting for us anymore.
— KitchenAid (@KitchenAidUSA) October 4, 2012
Assuming the tweet was a mistake by a single employee—and there’s no reason to assume otherwise—KitchenAid’s reaction was extremely quick. They deleted the offensive message and issued an apology within 2.5 hours, and according to data blog Simply Measured, KitchenAid gained more than 1,000 new followers with their response.
Now that’s how you respond to a Twitter controversy.
4. Entenmann’s tweeted a trending hashtag without asking an important question.
The idea behind the hashtag: Social media managers often look at trending hashtags to decide what to post. After all, if a hashtag is trending, it’s popular—your brand might be able to gain a few followers by sending out a funny joke or meme.
With that in mind, in 2011, baked goods manufacturer Entenmann’s decided to capitalize on the trending #notguilty hashtag with their own innocuous tweet.
The problem: Before tweeting with a trending hashtag, make sure you know why the hashtag is trending. That’s, like, social media 101.
In this case, #notguilty was trending because Casey Anthony was acquitted of first-degree murder in one of the most high-profile trials of the century. People were outraged—and tasty treats weren’t exactly part of the conversation.
The brand quickly deleted the tweet and issued an apology…sort of.
“Sorry everyone, we weren’t trying to reference the trial in our tweet! We should have checked the trending hashtag first,” they wrote. “Our #notguilty tweet was insensitive, albeit completely unintentional. We are sincerely sorry.”
Our #notguilty tweet was insensitive, albeit completely unintentional. We are sincerely sorry.
— Entenmann's (@Entenmanns) July 5, 2011
We don’t think they really needed to specify that the tweet was “completely unintentional.” Everyone already knew that—that’s why it was so funny.
Over the next few days, the story behind the errant tweet emerged: Like many brands, Entenmann had hired a third-party company to handle its social media accounts. That company was Likeable Media, and they issued an explanation on their own site.
“The truth is, our team was leveraging the trending topics and moving so fast they neglected to see what the hashtag was related to,” Likeable executive Dave Kerpen wrote (the original post has since been deleted—understandably, the company’s trying to move on from its faux pas).
“While this was clearly a mistake, it’s important to not only say sorry, but to leave the situation better than it was before,” Kerpen continued. “To that end, I’ll be continuing to do pro-bono work for nonprofit organizations in need.”
5. Chrysler criticizes Detroit drivers.
The idea behind the tweet: Chrysler is based in Detroit. Why not show a little affection for Motor City with a bit of casual ribbing?
The problem: Okay, Chrysler clearly didn’t intend to send this tweet on its official account. It’s likely that an employee meant to tweet the message on a personal account, but hey, Twitter logins can be tricky.
The tweet in question, now deleted:
The @ChryslerAutos account quickly responded to outraged Detroit residents.
“Our apologies – our account was compromised earlier today,” they wrote. “We are taking steps to resolve it.”
Today, the @ChryslerAutos account is closed (the company now owns @Chrysler, which is obviously more direct). No word on whether they approve of Michigan drivers.
6. Sunny D, Steak-umm, and Little Debbie start tweeting about mental health—to varying to degrees of success.
The idea behind the tweets: Mental health is important. Who wouldn’t want to get some health guidance from their favorite junk food brands?
Honestly, we’re not sure why this became a thing, but for a while in 2018, several companies seemed really invested in mental healthcare. Unfortunately, one of those companies was Steak-umm, which produces the most depressing food in the history of food.
when u get the steak-umm pic.twitter.com/zezMZnFaTH
— Steak-umm (@steak_umm) September 9, 2019
The problem: We shouldn’t have to spell out the problem, but here goes: While mental healthcare is important, brands should stay in their respective lanes.
The Steak-umm tweets are especially strange, and for some reason, they haven’t been deleted. Maybe it’s because they’re actually kind of insightful, or maybe it’s because nobody is going to the Steak-umm Twitter account for any other reason.
The company started by asking whether social media was a good idea. Note the use of “meat” instead of “meet.”
why are so many young people flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance, and attention? I'll tell you why. they're isolated from real communities, working service jobs they hate while barely making ends meat, and are living w/ unchecked personal/mental health problems
— Steak-umm (@steak_umm) September 26, 2018
That launched an epic rant about how “young people today have it the best and worst.” It ended by calling on readers to “be encouraged and have hope my beeflings.” No, we’re not kidding.
no soundcloud to add here. at the end of the day it’s easy to tweet about problems and complain about “the other,” it’s a lot harder to improve the self and work toward solutions
be encouraged and have hope my beeflings, the world needs it
— Steak-umm (@steak_umm) September 26, 2018
Those tweets worked surprisingly well—many Twitter users found the rant inspiring, and while the brand got some negative reactions, their unconventional approach to social media (read: going on long-winded rants about the evils of social media) seemed authentic.
But when Sunny Delight seemed to throw its hat into the trash-snacks-as-arbiters-of-mental-health ring, the results weren’t quite as stellar.
I can’t do this anymore
— SUNNYD (@sunnydelight) February 4, 2019
That cryptic tweet was criticized for using depression as a brand engagement strategy. Granted, it went viral, which is the ultimate goal of any social media campaign—but to people with actual mental health issues, it might have seemed insensitive.
The tweet, though, was sent out during the Super Bowl, presumably in response to the notoriously boring Patriots vs. Rams matchup—it picked up steam the next day, however, and lost its context. Sunny D seemed to run with it.
Still, it’s arguably better than Little Debbies’ ultra-serious approach. Replying to Sunny D, the snack cake maker gave actual tips for dealing with clinical depression.
Please just stick to posting about how your snack cakes have more chocolate in them now or whatever pic.twitter.com/To74I9hEdl
— Brands Saying Bae (@BrandsSayingBae) February 4, 2019
At least they didn’t include something like, “and stock up on Twinkies! Twinkies: more effective than medicine, and more delicious than talking to a therapist!”
7. Chase Bank’s #MondayMotivation backfires.
The idea behind the tweet: Chase Bank didn’t invent #MondayMotivation. Tweeters use it to share inspirational quotes, memes, and stories. For instance, here’s a tweet that informs us that “life is a gift.”
Life is a gift. Wake up every morning and realize that. #thankful #MondayMotivation pic.twitter.com/Sl5FrH9ya6
— Elysia Skye (@ElysiaSkye) September 5, 2019
Nope, this fiasco wasn’t a product of Chase Bank’s marketing team, such as it proved to be. It was just an attempt to glom onto a popular hashtag, get some exposure, and position the brand as a relatable, customer-focused entity. Things didn’t quite work out that way.
The problem: For a bank that taxpayers stepped in to save back in 2008, to the tune of $25 billion, Chase doesn’t seem to have been humbled. The offending tweet (posted April 29, 2019, and since deleted, of course) takes the form of an imaginary conversation between an account-holder and Chase.
“You: why is my balance so low,” the tweet begins. The “bank account” responds with a few thrifty tips: “make coffee at home…, eat the food that’s already in the fridge…, you don’t need a cab, it’s only three blocks.”
Then it’s back to “you.” “I guess we’ll never know.” But the account gets the last word: “Seriously?” Cue the hashtag.
Yeah, that didn’t go over well in the Twitter community, where people lined up to point out that the tweet smacks of “poor-shaming.”
.@Chase: why aren’t customers saving money?
Taxpayers: we lost our jobs/homes/savings but gave you a $25b bailout
Workers: employers don’t pay living wages
Economists: rising costs + stagnant wages = 0 savings
Chase: guess we’ll never know
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) April 29, 2019
To their credit (credit—get it?), the social media folks at Chase Bank acted like they appreciated the blowback in one of those, “We’re just here to learn and get better, folks,” tweets that represent the standard operating procedure for when itchy Twitter fingers get your brand into trouble.
Our #MondayMotivation is to get better at #MondayMotivation tweets. Thanks for the feedback Twitter world.
— Chase (@Chase) April 29, 2019
Others suggested a new hashtag for Chase’s comments on their customers’ financial habits: #ToneDeafTuesday.
.@Chase, this isn’t #MondayMotivation. Unless this condescension reflects Mr. Dimon’s view of his customers, I’d suggest an apology. We can call it #ToneDeafTuesday.
— Rep. Katie Porter (@RepKatiePorter) April 29, 2019