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Can you recover your brand’s reputation if you make a serious error on social media?

18 minute read

Polly Kay

Getting to grips with marketing an SME or a small local business can be a steep learning curve for the decision makers behind the enterprise, and integrating a strong, positive social media presence into the brand’s marketing collateral is a must in today’s highly connected digital world.

It would be hard to overstate the value that a good social media presence and reputation can provide for brands of all sizes when it comes to raising awareness of the brand and its offerings and driving sales. Finding the winning formula for social media interactions has not only helped many brands to grow and expand but has also served as a launchpad for others.

If your social media content is unique, engaging, and captures people’s attention (perhaps due to the effective use of humour or an ability to reliably post interesting and highly shareable content) you may soon find yourself with more business than you can handle, without a correlating high ad spend required to achieve this.

However, taking the wrong approach by inadvertently posting something contentious, offensive or highly polarising can quickly snowball into a huge, very public PR nightmare for even a small business or local brand, which can threaten not only the brand’s bottom line but also its continued survival.

If you have found yourself on the receiving end of an outpouring of social media hostility as the result of content you have posted or are concerned about the way your business and brand is being perceived by your prospects on social media, knowing what to do next can be difficult.

In this article, I will discuss the challenges of recovering your brand’s reputation if you make a serious error on social media, and share some guidance on how to avoid making a mistake in the first place. I will also outline the first steps you should take if the worst does happen and you are faced with the aftermath of a poorly thought out social media post which is threatening your brand’s reputation and even future survival.

The best approach to social media posting for brands

Taking great care over what, when and how you post content to your business’s social media accounts is very important to keep the risks of inadvertently posting something problematic to a minimum, and this means thinking every comment through carefully before you hit “post.”

Staying ahead of the game, being quick to capitalise on trending topics and being the first to bring something new to your audience’s attention often forms the core of the social media marketing side of brands that achieve a lot of success through their social media presence. But being too quick off the mark in this respect also leaves you vulnerable to problems later on if the mood changes, there is more to the story than meets the eye, or the posted content unexpectedly offends, angers, or upsets prospects and the general public.

Even if you are impeccably vigilant about your posted content and take into account the wider picture and work hard to predict and pre-empt potential controversies down the line, this is not always fully effective. Whilst some brands that have garnered a huge amount of negative social media publicity actively welcome it and stand by their initial comments as part of a tactically planned hot take or conversation-starter, for most businesses, this is a nightmare situation that should be avoided at all costs.

Taking steps to safeguard your content against controversy before you post is always hugely important on social media, but if you do find yourself in the eye of a publicity storm as the result of a misstep, all is not necessarily lost.

How you react and tackle your public response in the aftermath of a social media post gone awry can make all of the difference between the incident being a minor blip on your brand’s radar to being the catalysing event that ultimately heralds the end of the brand in its entirety.

If you handle things well when it comes to the clean-up and damage limitation side of the exercise, you can potentially salvage (or even improve) your brand’s reputation as a result.

Learning from the mistakes of others

If you’re trying to ensure that your brand’s social media content doesn’t come back to bite you further down the line, a good place to start is by learning from the mistakes of others, by examining the social media collateral of other brands that have backfired badly, and understanding why.

It is by no means always the small brands without a team of marketing and PR experts at their disposal that crash and burn on social media either, as the following epic fails from well-known brands demonstrate.

One of the biggest and most public social media fails of 2018 was committed by a social media platform itself; Snapchat in this case, which promoted a new in-app quiz with the following advert.

Snapchat

This ad would appear to be immediately problematic for most of us; the full copy reads “Would you rather slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown.” A large, well-known international brand suggesting that anyone should be physically assaulted (even in jest) is an obviously poor move in most people’s eyes, but there is even more to this social media faux-pas than first appears.

Chris Brown was very publicly convicted of assaulting then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, and his name has arguably been one that is synonymous with domestic violence ever since. This of course makes Snapchat’s choice of approach with this advert even more inadvisable, and in the wake of the incident Rihanna spoke out against the platform herself, stating that it was “insensitive to domestic violence victims,” and encouraging users of the app to delete it.

The entire incident resulted in a 5% drop in the share value of Snapchat the same day that Rihanna posted her own response to the controversy, followed by a further 2% drop in share value the day after. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel also saw his own net worth fall by $150m in the two days following the outcry.

Another well-publicised social media fail on the part of a big brand was committed in 2017 by Dove, as part of their “Transformation” campaign. The stated aims of the campaign were to empower women, promote self-love and celebrate realistic standards of natural beauty; which all sound like positive and uncontroversial goals.

However, the campaign’s execution quickly backfired on them after one of the brand’s posts on Facebook was perceived to show a black woman turning into a white woman after using Dove products.

Dove campaign

Source: @NayTheMua

Whilst this was by no means what the advert was intended to demonstrate, this poorly thought-out approach was widely denigrated on both social media and within the press. Despite the brand being quick to respond and apologise for their error (and the black model featured within the ad weighing in with her own statement too), the rapid spread of criticism of the post across social media meant that this attempt at damage limitation was only partially successful.

Brands that recovered a social media faux-pas with aplomb

When you take into account the fact that even big brands like Snapchat and Dove have fallen on their own social media swords in recent years and suffered as a result, it can be hard to imagine how another brand that finds themselves in a similar position might seek to mitigate the damage.

However, some brands have managed to do just that with a combination of luck and the right approach; like the American Red Cross.

American Red Cross tweet

The above image is at first glance a fairly nonsensical post from the ARC, and was in fact posted in error when one of the brand’s social media team accidentally sent out the tweet from the brand’s official account rather than her own personal account.

However, the lack of context and relevance of this Tweet for the brand itself was only the beginning; and of course, allusions to drinking to excess are fairly much the polar opposite of what an organisation like the Red Cross stands for.

Whilst the tweet only remained on the American Red Cross’s account for around an hour before it was spotted and removed, one lesson that anyone using social media for business needs to learn well is that you can’t un-ring the bell once the damage has already been done.

The American Red Cross took the right approach by not only deleting the tweet but also acknowledging it, apologising for it in an amusing but sufficiently respectful manner, and explaining the cause of the error.

Whilst this in itself may not be enough to undo the potential damage of a rogue tweet, the beer brand mentioned in the tweet itself (Dogfish Head) in its turn copied and re-tweeted the post in question, with an appeal to its own followers to make a donation to the American Red Cross. This was itself shared and re-tweeted widely and resulted in an influx of donations and support for the service.

It also did Dogfish Head’s own brand reputation a massive favour too!

Is courting controversy or polarising opinions ever a good idea?

People with no opinion on anything and those who would rather sit on the fence than take a stand over an important issue for the sake of being nice and uncontroversial rarely make waves, but can also come across as weak or uninspiring.

For brands that are trying to appeal to certain specific demographics, whose brand image is connected to activism or that have built up a reputation for being edgy and controversial, a properly planned and executed hot take, controversial campaign or polarising social media post can form a vital part of their wider marketing collateral.

This can help to reinforce and improve brand perception among specific target demographics, garner mainstream media attention, and in many cases, result in highly sharable trending content that can give a big boost to the brand’s bottom line.

However, there is a world of difference between planning a campaign that is designed to polarise opinions and generate a strong response (both positive and negative) and unexpectedly having to deal with the aftermath of a post, standpoint or error that was never intended to happen in the first place.

A campaign that is designed to be edgy and that is well executed will have gone through a huge and often protracted process of investigation, fine-tuning and approval before launch, in which every element of the content’s impact and potential reach have been assessed and planned for.

A brilliant example of this from 2018 comes from KFC, which was in the news a lot last year after a supply chain issue led to many KFC stores in the UK running out of chicken, and being unable to restock their restaurants for several days.

The idea of such a huge brand running out of their flagship product, not just within one restaurant but across much of the UK and for a prolonged period of time is, of course, the type of massive PR nightmare that usually results in heads rolling. However, KFC moved quickly to restore brand perception with their key demographics with this unforgettable response:

KFC FCK campaign

Re-jigging the layout of a huge well-known brand’s slogan to turn it into a shortened form of a fairly heavy-duty cuss word was, by anyone’s reckoning, a very bold move.

The story of KFC’s supply chain issues was front page news at the time, and so when the campaign itself launched (which was achieved quickly and comprehensively across both social media, print, billboards and other platforms), the meaning of that empty bucket with the “FCK” slogan was immediately and widely understood and appreciated.

When I first saw the ad, it triggered genuine emotion in me immediately; within a few seconds, I felt shock, amusement and admiration, promptly followed by a reasonable degree of professional jealousy for the brains behind it (marketing agency Mother London).

I like to think (although I may well be kidding myself) that an idea like this would have crossed my mind too if I had been part of KFC’s marketing team, but I am also very sure that I would have immediately ruled it out as too controversial and polarising to run with, capped off with a healthy degree of suspicion over how the Advertising Standards Agency would feel about the whole thing.

Creating an emotional response such as this amongst viewers of an advert is the gold standard for marketers everywhere, and picking such a contentious term to pin a whole campaign on was a tactical gamble, but the marketing agency and KFC decisionmakers behind the campaign were well-placed to pull it off successfully.

This is because the brand has an excellent understanding of their target demographics, their preferences, and the type of tone and style that they respond to. They also have the benefit of a large team of professionals across multiple different niches able to weigh in, provide direction, point out potential problems, and generally help to turn an initial wild idea into a workable and profitable campaign.

You can never guarantee how social media users and the public will respond to an approach of this type, and there is always an element of risk. But by planning the right approach and discarding ideas or approaches that might prove to be more trouble than they are worth, as well as ensuring that a plan and protocol is in place to direct and manage the aftermath of the content, brands can go a long way towards reaping the rewards without a correlating level of risk.

However, deliberately planning a controversial post or polarising opinions in this way is very risky for smaller brands, for multiple reasons. First of all, you really need a team of experienced professionals to be able to plan, execute and troubleshoot a controversial campaign, in order to avoid errors or flaws that your followers will notice and pick up on even if everyone in your team missed them.

You also need to plan and be prepared for the aftermath, which can be large and far-reaching and in itself require a full-time response to stay on top of things.

Often, it is not worth the risk for the average SME or local trader to attempt an approach of this type, so if you are considering doing so, think carefully.

What to do if a social media post blows up for all the wrong reasons

Let’s say the very worst has happened. You made a social media post with the best of intentions, left the office or turned your phone off, and a few hours or days later find yourself in the middle of an epic storm which your business and the people trying to run it have never seen before nor have any idea how to handle.

It can be a very rude awakening to suddenly find yourself or your brand launched into the public’s awareness UK-wide or even internationally thanks to a single throwaway comment or poorly thought out post. However, this happens to brands and businesses on some level every day, so it is well worth having a plan for what to do in place if you should be unlucky enough to have this happen to you.

Before you make your post, consider everything carefully, taking into account the wider context of things, and ways in which your post could be misread or misunderstood. Spellcheck and check for typos, and review the post again once it is live to ensure that it has formatted and displayed properly.

Try to keep a close eye on your post and its comments for at least the first couple of hours after it appears too, as early reactions might let you know of a problem in the making early enough to limit or avoid major damage.

If you do find that a post blows up in your face, you will need to act reasonably quickly. Posts and brands that generate negativity or a bad reaction among prospects can quickly spread and gain wider attention, and the vitriol and anger that is directed at brands as a result of this can worsen fast if the company is perceived not to care – such as by failing to react at all.

However, it is also important to avoid a knee-jerk reaction, because when the spotlight is already on you, all of your following moves will be watched carefully too. Anything you say or do in the immediate aftermath will be watched and dissected, so ensure that you don’t take a stand or declare a position that you might regret and wish to backtrack on later on.

If you can clearly see why your post is a problem (such as if a missed typo throws you under the bus, or you can understand why the post is offensive or insensitive in hindsight) your first step will generally be fairly simple, and involve deleting or hiding the post immediately.

Simply leaving things there and failing to explain and apologise is likely to cause problems in and of itself, but removing the post in the first instance if you do not intend to defend it is the best approach.

However, make sure that you take some screenshots of it (and the comments, if relevant) as you may wish to refer back to them or reference them later on in your public response.

You also need to begin reviewing and considering the wider impact of the post to formulate the appropriate response, and if your business is a reasonable size or your brand is attracting a huge amount of attention, you may also want to think about contacting a marketing or PR adviser before you respond formally too.

Your options for responding after a problem post

When it comes to how you actually respond in the aftermath of a problem post, this will depend on the angle you want to take to things, and you have a number of different options here. I will outline the main ones and their pros and cons below.

Making a correction

If your post has caused a problem due to a typo or error rather that because of the content or intent of the post itself, you may be able to edit and correct the post. This is possible on Facebook, although depending on where and how on the platform you made the post in question, viewers may be able to view the edit history and see that you have done this. Some social networks (like Twitter) don’t allow you to edit a post after it goes live, which only leaves you with the option of deleting it.

If the error has largely been well-received and made people laugh, and is widely understood not to have been offensive or poorly meant, editing and making a clear and easy to find explanation for the correction may be all you need to do. Joining in with some good-natured self-depreciating humour is a strong supporting move too.

Getting involved in the comments and joining in with good-natured laughter surrounding the mistake can help to humanise your brand, and sometimes, this can provide an even better chance to retain and gain prospects than if the error had not occurred at all.

Removing the offending post

If feedback on your problem post makes it clear that it is offensive or controversial in a way you did not intend or predict, you will probably be keen to disassociate yourself with the post as soon as possible and let your audience know that you made an error that you wish to correct.

However, unless you are very lucky, even a very promptly removed or hidden post will still have been seen by any number of people, some of which may well have screen-shotted it and shared it elsewhere, which you need to account for as well.

If you do delete or remove an offending post, you need to provide an apology and explanation for this in short order, otherwise the angry hoards are likely to become just as incensed about your deletion (and perceived hope that nobody saw it or has already forgotten about it) and lack of comment as they are about the original content.

Post a short but sincere apology without caveats as soon as possible, and while you may wish to explain the reasoning behind the post and why you now understand that it was wrong, at this early stage whilst you’re still getting to grips with things, it may be better to state that you are “looking into things and will respond in full shortly.”

Defending the context and use of the post

One of the riskier approaches to dealing with the response to a problem post, but one that many businesses consider in the first instance, is to defend the post’s context and intended use whilst distancing the brand from the perceived message that people received from it.

For instance, if your post was in itself perfectly innocent or well intentioned, but current events or the wider context mean that the post could be read in a number of different ways (some of which may be problematic) this may appear to be the most obvious response.

However, this approach rarely pays off, for a variety of reasons. First of all, trying to defend a post (even with valid reasons and good intentions) when it has generated a negative reaction is rarely well-received, and can worsen the issue. Your statement or comment may be misread, taken out of context, or not accepted as appropriate or reasonable by people who see it.

Making a statement of this kind may work as background context with an unreserved apology and retraction, but trying to defend it, getting into semantics, or expecting readers to digest and think critically about your position while the reason for their poor reaction is still staring them in the face won’t be effective with a large number of people.

You could well simply be digging yourself a larger, deeper hole by taking this approach, which will make life harder and cause greater problems for your brand in the long run.

Taking a hard stand in defence of the post

Taking a hard stand in defence of a post is perhaps the most polarising and risky approach of all to dealing with a post gone awry, but if you are determined to keep and defend your original content, this approach is a better one than a partial defence as outlined above.

Nobody likes a fence-sitter or someone who won’t speak up for what they believe in, and whilst the prior section covering a defence of the post’s context may well be read as fence-sitting, standing by your post sends a clear and unambiguous message of determination that can work in your favour, if your reasons for taking a hard stand are valid and marketable.

This approach can certainly backfire spectacularly if the cause is a poor one – as has been the case for numerous small businesses (mainly in the USA) who have tried to defend posts or statements refusing services to gay people (such as making a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding).

However, for brands that target demographics with strong ethical, moral or environmental values that post contentious or polarising content of these types, making a contentious statement or positing an opinion that will polarise readers into “for” and “against” might be the right move.

The people whose views don’t gel with your company ethos and standpoint won’t be interested in buying from you or supporting you anyway, but by demonstrating to your followers that you share their concerns or causes and will stand by them when the going gets tough, you can boost sales and brand perception significantly by standing firmly behind your content.

Defending a post in this way needs to be tackled carefully. The contents of the post itself should be either clearly stated as a personal opinion (with further explanation of its viewpoint, if required) or be an indisputable fact backed up by reputable sources, which cannot be denied or argued against by any reasonable person, even those whose opinions are divergent.

As ever, posts that are likely to become contentious should be carefully planned if you are willing to (or even trying to) court controversy, so that you can ensure that everything is airtight and that you have all of your ducks in a row before the inevitable reaction.

If you find yourself caught out needing to make a quick decision about how to handle a post of this type that you weren’t expecting a big reaction to, you should first think carefully about whether or not this really is the hill you are willing to die on.

A fired-up squad of fans and followers supporting and defending your post can easily appear to provide a good reason for you to do so as well, but remember that you’re only getting one side of the story there, and don’t assume that the opinions of the wider public will automatically fall in line with it.

We all have a huge level of inherent bias about the things we believe and that are important to us, and it can be very hard for us to be open and objective enough to see when we are wrong and change our viewpoint. Make very sure that this is not happening to you if you are thinking of defending a post in this way.

One of the keys to defending a post like this is that ultimately, you need to go big or go home – you’re either defending the post and standing by it 100% (which means not apologising) or you’re distancing yourself from it and apologising unreservedly for it. Trying to take the middle ground or attempting to please people on both sides of the divide will result in not succeeding with either set.

Even if you’re a small or relatively unknown brand (and perhaps especially if you are) then defending or standing by the right type of polarising post might actually give your business a huge boost and raise brand awareness more effectively than anything else you could have done instead.

However, you are equally likely to find yourself unprepared to deal with how things play out from there, and risking the future survival of your business too, so this is not a decision to make lightly when adrenaline is running high.

Best practices for your brand’s response after a problem post blows up

Regardless of the angle that you decide to run with when it comes to dealing with the clean-up operation after a post has gone awry, the way in which you handle things from there can make all of the difference between coming out on top, reducing the damage caused, or irreparably harming your brand in the long-term.

1. Act quickly

Move quickly when something goes wrong to limit further damage and provide yourself some time and space to think. What you do at this stage depends on your reading of the situation and how you think you might wish to proceed from there.

This might mean deleting, temporarily hiding, or turning off the comments on the post, editing the post, and/or making a simple neutral statement that you are investigating the post, problem or complaint and will respond in full shortly to give yourself more time.

2. Decide on your desired approach and stick by it

Next, you need to decide the angle you’re going to take to tackle the post, and once you have committed to this there’s no going back, so don’t rush into your decision. Consider taking advice (perhaps even by retaining a PR or marketing expert who can help you to analyse the situation and determine the best response) before you make a final decision.

3. How to apologise

If you decide that an apology is warranted (as it is for most approaches) make this quickly, unreservedly and sincerely. Avoid justifications or caveats, and anything that could be considered as even a little bit passive aggressive – such as “we hear that some people found this offensive.” This might seem like a perfectly innocent statement, and for most of us it is, but people who did indeed find the post offensive (or otherwise problematic) may find this type of sentence a little patronising or belittling.

You might also want to make a statement reinforcing your brand’s position and outlining clearly that the content or issue posted was not in line with the brand’s ethos and why, and explain that you will be investigating or “reviewing the incident” to determine what went wrong, how to prevent it from happening again in the future, and in order to address the matter fully. Make sure that you come back with this response at the appropriate time too.

4. Explanations 

It may also be helpful to post an explanation of the causes of the problem, and the actions you took as a result of this. If the problem was caused by a simple typo or posting error, tell your readers this and again, apologise.

Whatever the reason for the problem post (be that accidentally posting from the wrong account, missing the context in which the post could be read, or simply due to a lack of oversight prior to submitting the content), a simple, true explanation without attempting to defend or justify the error is almost always the best response.

You might want to throw in a little self-depreciating humour in here if this is appropriate to the situation, but beware of how appropriate this is given the context.

Putting things right and rebuilding brand perception

Next, you need to make a plan for how to make things right again and rebuild the perception of your brand. Letting people know how you dealt with the issue is a good move here, as is outlining what you have done to prevent future recurrences.

You might even wish to build a brand awareness or marketing campaign around this endeavour too.

If there is something you can do to make amends (a charitable donation, supporting an important cause or any other approach that can help to rebuild positive perception of your brand) then do it, and make sure that this is well publicised.

Always stay humble, and take responsibility for the issue – acknowledging it and being willing and able to say “we were wrong” gets a much better response than a half-hearted or conditional apology, or trying to pretend that nothing happened at all.

Finally, learn from your mistakes. This will happen organically if you do indeed follow the above advice. You might well be forgiven for (or even be able to turn to your advantage) one major slip-up on social media – but your chance of getting away with more than one is much smaller.

Polly Kay is a British copywriter and content writer with a digital marketing background. After studying Marketing (BA Hons) at university, she first honed her skills as a copywriter by working in-house for an award-winning creative agency in London before branching out on her own in 2012. Today, Polly Kay Copywriting and Content Writing serves clients ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK to well-known multinational brands. Polly specialises in SEO-friendly content writing for online use, and both brand-led and direct response copywriting for all applications.

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