Social media missteps and ‘free’ RATs: A cautionary tale


Source: Shutterstock/The Conversation.

More than a few businesses have taken advantage of the scramble for rapid antigen tests. We know they’ve been selling upwards of $100 bucks a pop. We’re all horrified, but happy to see the ACCC getting involved and chasing those faceless (heartless?) businesses.

However, last week there were instances of smaller online businesses doing RAT promotions. For many followers and customers, this feels close to home and really personal — on our phones, in our hands — and it does not feel right.

The current climate is like a perfect storm for social media missteps. Followers are feeling under pressure, anxious, and in these times anything tone-deaf or slightly out of touch may cause more damage to your brand or business than it would under “normal” circumstances. With this in mind, it’s important to consider some crisis planning for anyone who relies on their social media profile for their business, having a plan to manage and mitigate a crisis that comes from a misstep or a misunderstanding.

“Free” RATs not so free

Last week a popular online business’ Instagram account promoted a RAT giveaway “free to their customers”. The RATs were not really free though, they were tied to product spending — spend $20 and get one RAT free, spend $40 and get two RATs, and on it went.

Giveaways can be fraught, even when they don’t offer health or medical products. I have had clients who have arranged giveaways without thinking through logistics or true costs, and have lost money and damaged their reputations by not being able to meet their giveaway conditions.

So any post offering RATs in a time of great scarcity should have been worded very carefully; in the current climate it is such a sensitive and anxiety-inducing topic. But to then tie the giveaway to a product spend was a misstep, no matter how well-intentioned.

The account was inundated with negative comments and upset followers saying the giveaway was tone-deaf and in poor taste. The owner of the account responded to comments immediately until they couldn’t keep up, saying they just wanted to help, and how dare anyone to suggest otherwise. The post was soon deleted and a story was put up suggesting critics were wrong and that the business only wanted to help. Posts since have contained comments like, “critics and trolls won’t be permitted”.

The site is now selling RATs, which would have been the best, transparent first step to take to move the hundreds of RATS the store had ordered to onsell. I don’t doubt the business thought it was a way to be helpful, but because it was a profit-tied approach, it negates any goodwill toward a giveaway.

Back to basics

The issue for the business became more than just tying RATs to a spend — a form of profiteering. The brand damage came from not acknowledging the mistake at first. It may be hard for a small business to believe that by doing this sort of “giveaway” they were profiteering, but in essence it is. And a business needs to understand these basics first.

Even if a business feels they’re in the right, like this one did, the next step of responding defensively and immediately caused followers even more angst. Arguing online with followers, not accepting that the post made the community angry, and engaging in debate created even more drama.

The true first course of action during an issue like this, is not to act at all. The first step is to assess.

On “instant” platforms like social media, businesses often feel pressure to act and respond in the same spirit of immediacy — putting a story up or going live with an explanation, straight away in real time — but haste is often what creates a greater issue.

A misconception about dealing with drama is: the swifter the response, the faster the fix. But more often than not, responding publicly without stopping to think through a strategy or really considering “will this help or hinder” can drum up more drama. It’s important in any crisis to assess first, be clear on strategy and steps forward, and then communicate this.

It’s also worth weighing up what digging deeper with your engagement on the issue is worth. Is being in the right more important than giving your followers what they seek from your brand? Sometimes the best thing to do is delete a post, offer an unqualified apology and let it rest. Even if you are the brand, it’s still a brand and it needs to be managed.

I advise clients to have a trusted team to check in with as soon as something challenges your brand or your business. It doesn’t have to be a crisis professional on-call but it should be a trusted group of at least three people. One of these people should fit into your ideal demographic and one of them should be someone who thinks differently from you. Check-in with them and ask: how does this sound/feel to you? What do you think I should do? Because then you’re not working within a silo of your thoughts and feelings.

No matter how many times we hear this is our “new normal” it will take a long time for things to normalise and there will be ongoing sensitivities. Until then, businesses that rely on frequent daily communication with potential customers should have a plan in place to mitigate any missteps. Even if it’s just a one-pager, written in big bold letters that says “do not do anything yet”.


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