Social media disasters: Five lessons from the biggest stuff-ups of the past two years

Managing your social media is no easy task. Learning how to successfully engage with your customers in an authentic, personable way, while still maintaining a positive brand image and the integrity of your company, can be a challenge.

The unpredictable nature of social media means a stuff up is inevitable, but fortunately we can learn from the mistakes of others.

A study by GlobalWebIndex found in the last six months of 2012, the number of active Twitter users increased by 40%, beating Facebook and Google+, and currently there are over 550 million Twitter users. While Twitter is the fastest growing platform, the sustained growth of Facebook has been nothing short of extraordinary. Last year the social network cracked the one billion users milestone and founder Mark Zuckerberg continues to innovate the networking technology, as increasingly social networking becomes woven into the web of our everyday lives.

The best things about social media are its transparency and ability to connect people all around the world, but unfortunately for businesses, this means when a gaffe is made, it can very easily be communicated around the globe. Naturally, with the ever increasing numbers of social media users the mistakes have become more frequent, or at least, they’re no longer able to slip under the radar.

Social media experts Hugh Stephens from Dialogue Consulting and James Griffin from SR7 says the most important things a company can do in the wake of a social media crisis is to involve the media person or PR department immediately, respond quickly and have a plan in place for when a crisis occurs.

SmartCompany had a chat to Stephens and Griffin about some of the biggest disasters of the past few years and what lessons they provide.

1. Foresee potential crises and act accordingly

There have been a few cases recently where a well-intended social media post or tweet can be hijacked by the disgruntled public and used to express their frustrations with the company. In order to avoid such a scenario, it’s useful to employ some foresight and keep in mind external factors and the current public perception of your company before posting online.

In November 2011, when Qantas was dealing with industrial action from thee major unions and had responded by locking out employees and cancelling flights, it launched a competition over Twitter to win a first class gift pack including pyjamas and toiletries. In order to win, Qantas asked users to describe their dream luxury inflight experience with the hashtag #qantasluxury. Rather than providing some positive publicity for the airline, people responded sarcastically and upset passengers saw it as a chance to vent their frustrations.

Over a year later, users have not forgotten #qantasluxury and are still using the hashtag to make jokes about the company. Stephens says Qantas should have foreseen this reaction.

“Most people would say this was utterly predictable. There are always external factors which will influence the usually happy, lovely, friendly social media community. In November 2011, the perception around the Qantas brand had changed and these external factors impacted people’s behaviour online.

“This was a matter of not seeing the bigger picture. Qantas would have been better to stay very quiet on social media and focus on responding to customers’ concerns,” he says.

Griffin says this provides a good example of how social media doesn’t occur “in a vacuum”.

“With Qantas, the luxury campaign was done against the backdrop of workplace relations issues and this is a prime example of how people who handle social media need to be mindful of what’s happening more broadly.

“Social media transcends traditional marketing in that it’s an ad that people can speak back to. With Facebook wall posts, people can comment on specific posts, respond to each other and partake in a conversation,” he says.

Recently, Qantas was caught up in another social media debacle where Facebook users started spreading bigoted comments in relation to the airline’s decision to remove pork from the menu of its flights with stopovers in Dubai. Being a decision motivated by cultural differences, it was always likely to catalyse a mixture of responses – some good and some bad.

But Stephens says it’s these moments businesses should be prepared for.

“This situation could have been planned for a fair while in advance. When you can anticipate a reaction on social media, companies can give additional resources to its social media and bring on extra people to make sure comments, where possible, are pre-moderated for a short period of time.

“Plan the resources and be more proactive in moderating comments – perhaps even have a 24/7 moderating team for a few days directly following a big announcement if you anticipate a response,” he says.

Stephens says in a situation where deleting comments is a necessity, such as this, companies should also explain why and state the commenting guidelines for the page.

2. On social media, you don’t own your brand narrative

In early 2012, fast food chain McDonald’s used the hashtag #McDStories to highlight the “hard-working people” who help to produce its meals and promote the chain’s use of fresh produce. Instead, users hijacked the hashtag and used it to spread fast food horror stories. Tweeters comments included stories of food poisoning, stories of weight gain and finding unwanted items, such as stickers, in burgers.

In this instance, McDonalds was unable to predict its tweet would be responded to in this way, but Griffin says it does provide a lesson in the volatile nature of social media.


“McDStories is a really good example of how companies don’t own the narrative about their brand anymore. Even the most well-thought-out tweet can take an unexpected turn. McDonald’s learnt an important lesson in planning for backlash when something doesn’t go the way you thought.

“In social media you can’t expect all the twists and turns which might come along. So companies need to question the risk versus reward of a tweet or post,” he says.

Fortunately for companies, consumers are likely to forgive the occasional social media mishap.

“The cycle in which social media operates is pretty quick, so while there might be heavy flashes of reputational damage, it takes longer to seep in and for people to change their consumer habits,” he says.

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