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Social media can be a marketer’s best friend or worst enemy. While it can be a fantastic tool for businesses to create a friendly persona and to interact with customers, it can also be a recipe for disaster.

Slipups on social media channels like Facebook or Twitter are inevitable, especially in the fast-paced gut-reaction world of social media. Sometimes the slipups are minor like posting a harmless link to a funny video or a personal message. These kinds of mistakes can be easily rectified with a simple, honest apology. But there are also slips that can do serious damage to a brand.

Minor or huge, there’s always a lesson to be learnt. Here are six great examples of social media disasters that went viral and what you can learn from them.

1. Be open and transparent

BP’s strategy following the Gulf of Mexico spill, the worst in US history, was a disaster. It wasn’t just about what was said to the media, shifting the blame for the accident to the US owner of the sunken rig, Transocean (not the classiest response) but also about what they didn’t do on social media.

Even though the explosion occurred on April 20, BP didn’t give its first tweet on the disaster until April 27, simply saying:

BP social media

They also removed the social media links on their website to discourage people from joining the conversations that were happening. They also turned off comments on its YouTube channels. In addition, their Facebook page was only open to comments from those who liked their Facebook page. They even uploaded a commenting policy that warned that any ‘ad hominem attacks’ will be removed. Needless to mention that they have lost their credibility by trying to hide what was happening instead of dealing with the issue and being transparent.

The lesson? You need to react quickly and to be open and honest about the situation.

2. Don’t take yourself too seriously

On February 15, the American Red Cross sent out this tweet: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.”

american red cross

The tweet was accidently sent out by one of their employees. It was there for one hour before anyone noticed. The Red Cross dealt with it beautifully. Instead of blowing the tweet out of proportion, they responded with a humorous tweet by saying that the previous tweet was a mistake and that “the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys”. So they immediately acknowledged the mistake and apologised.

But what’s even better is that Mariah Calagione of beer company Dogfish Head jumped on the hashtag and asked their fans to donate to the Red Cross, providing a link and using the hashtag #gettngslizzerd. But think about it: if Red Cross would have overreacted or made a big deal of the mistake, they most likely wouldn’t have received such a positive response from Dogfish Head or anyone else.

3. Know who has access to your social media account

A social media executive for music chain HMV live-tweeted the firing of 190 staff members from the corporate Twitter account. “We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!!” the first tweet read.

hmv twitter

Eventually, the marketing director caught wind of the rogue tweeting, which of course was live-tweeted, too: “Just overheard our Marketing Director (he’s staying, folks!) ask ‘How do I shut down Twitter?”

The lesson here is that you should always know who’s managing and who has access to your social media accounts.

4. Don’t turn a disaster into a promotional opportunity

What better event to tie a sale into then a hurricane, right? That’s probably what the folks at American Apparel thought. They tried to capitalise on the fervour and interest in Hurricane Sandy, and used it as a marketing tool to promote a sale.

Here is the email they sent out to their database offering 20% off to customers for the next 36 hours “in case you’re bored during the storm.”

american apparel

The ad targeted online shoppers who were staying indoors to seek refuge from the storm. Needless to say that people quickly took to Twitter and other social networks to criticise the ad.

american apparel fans twitter

Word to the wise: think twice before trying to turn a natural disaster into a promotional opportunity.

5. Do your research

London Luton Airport learned the hard way to do proper research before posting on social media. The airline posted a photo on Facebook of a crashed airplane with a comment that read “Because we are such a super airport … this is what we prevent you from when it snows … Weeeee :)”

luton airport

The problem? The plane crash depicted in the image killed a six-year-old boy. The airport drew ire from Facebook followers, and subsequently issued an apology.

6. Check the news before you tweet

It’s not uncommon for tragedies to result in social media disasters. The NRA’s American Rifleman account posted a tweet on the day of the Aurora shooting saying “Good morning, shooters, Happy Friday! Weekend plans?”

aurora shooting

The employee who posted the tweet was apparently unaware of the tragedy. The tweet was removed three hours later and a few hours later the NRA_Rifleman account, which previously had around 16,000 followers, was deleted from Twitter. While a NRA spokesman later apologised for the incident, this is definitely not the way to go.

Deleting the Twitter account should never have been an option. Given the amount of screen shots and sharing that occurs across social media, brands need to be transparent. Deleting an account after a bad tweet made them look cowardly and irresponsible. It also makes it look as if it had gone into hiding.

Instead of deleting the account, they should’ve used the situation to take a stand against gun violence, to clarify its position and to engage users in a productive conversation.

Another thing that was later revealed is that the tweet was published via HootSuite, a tool that lets users schedule tweets in advance. The lesson? Don’t set it and forget it. Keep an eye on your scheduled tweets and on the news from the industries you’re part of.

What can we learn?

Here are some tips for dealing with these slips, if they happen to you:

Be open, be honest. No matter the gravity of the slip, be open and transparent. Don’t try to hide the situation and definitely don’t blame it on someone else. At the end of the day, it’s about being honest and humanising the brand whenever possible.

React quickly. Things spread like wildfire on social media, especially on Twitter. If you slip and you wait an hour, that’s 59 minutes too long. So always keep an eye on your posts and the reactions to your posts.

Listen to your audience. If you accidently post something that isn’t appropriate or if it offends unintentionally make sure to participate in the conversation and let people know that you’ve made a mistake.

Own up to your mistakes. Rather than try to argue to your audience that the mistake wasn’t so bad or that you’re actually in the right, the best course is often humility. So come clean and own up to anything you might be responsible for.

Don’t blow it out of the proportion if it isn’t the case. Don’t panic and if possible try to respond with humour.

Build an incredible network of brand ambassadors. If you have a history of excellent and professionalism on your social media accounts, when a mistake happens you will be able to lean on your strong community to speak up for your brand.

Have a plan of action. You should have a plan of action and think about all the things that could go wrong and how you could deal with different situations. Don’t wait until they happen to you. Instead practice dealing with these situations so you’re always prepared.

Wrapping up

The best advice we can give you is to always listen to your audience and to pay attention to both positive and negative feedback. If something goes wrong, respond quickly, be honest and be accountable if you’re made a mistake or offended your audience. That, and don’t drink and tweet.

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