Big Brands, Big Blunders: Social Missteps Offer Lessons Others Shouldn’t Ignore


Recent social media blunders by two major brands contain lessons for others in how not to behave online, experts say. Take these two rather dramatic examples:

In St. Louis, an Applebee’s waitress loses her job for a post showing a receipt from a pastor who left a snarky note instead of a tip. (Since she gave God 10 percent, the pastor wrote, why should she give the waitress 18?) 

Fellow employee Chelsea Welch takes a picture of the receipt (at right), uploads it to Reddit — then loses her job for violating a customer’s privacy. The firing creates an Internet firestorm, angry groups form on Facebook, and the chain’s on widget tracking the twitterverse shows nonstop attacks on the chain. (The controversy came two weeks after Applebee’s itself exposed the name of a pleased customer on its Facebook page, then began tagging and arguing with other posters over the issue in the middle of the night.)

Meanwhile in the U.K., as struggling music retailer HMV begins laying off 190 employees, its community manager Poppy Rose begins live tweeting how it feels as “the company you dearly love is being ruined.”[more]

“There are over 60 of us being fired at once!” she tells HMV’s 61,500 followers — a number that quickly grows to 73,350 as she continues. (Later, the official HMVaccount tweets that “one of our departing colleagues was understandably upset,” to which Poppy responds: “@hmvtweets you need to go to ‘settings’ and revoke my account access as an admin. I’m still able to switch between accounts.”)

Experts say both instances offer case studies that other social media managers can learn from.

Todd Defren, CEO of SHIFT Communications, told Brandchannel that “my counsel in such matters is to keep your powder dry. You do want to respond immediately to show you’re listening, but that needn’t mean falling on the sword. Most reasonable folks just need to know you’re aware and pondering vs. reacting thoughtlessly. ‘We hear you and we’re thinking this through. We’ll get back to you’ is a placeholder for sanity.” 

Teresa Caro, a vice president at Engauge, a digital and social marketing agency, told Brandchannel that Applebee’s and HMV clearly “had no organizational structure or governance around these issues.”

“Certainly they had no one trained to handle social media crisis,” Caro said. “Crisis communications in social should be planning like a PR crisis: there should be both preparation and response. Oftentimes, if you want to gain attention and stand out from the crowd in the social space, you need to be polarizing. That said, brands must have an upfront plan that anticipates a reaction.”

Caro referenced the AMC Theatres Twitter spat with Oreo in which an employee was given the power to respond with authority real-time and it proved engaging.

Also, “Tide detergent has a great reaction team,” she said. “They have two very well-known social media / communications responses. First, after a NASCAR crash in 2012, (the crew was) clearly seen sopping up jet fuel with powdered Tide. The company reacted within hours on their social media channels, describing how Tide is used for such purposes – and their multi-use story was picked up all over the web.”

The nature of wired engagement makes social media faux paus virtually inevitable, but it’s the brand of damage control that makes the difference – and authenticity is de rigueur.

“Digital channels have made doing business a 24/7 activity where response time is measured in nanoseconds and one false move is recorded in history forever,” Frederick Felman, CMO of MarkMonitor, told Brandchannel. “The essence of a strong relationship with customers is transparency. In the case of a faux pas, do the right thing – acknowledge the issue and engage in sincere and honest dialog with the community.”