8 Lessons to Learn from Past Social Media Debacles

In many ways, social media represents a dangerous space. Customers have an easy means by which to share negative stories with millions of people and companies now have to communicate back, often publicly too. Customers themselves are appearing in brand spaces, and companies have to let them. In this process, through openness and an increase in the sheer quantity of communication, mistakes are bound to happen – some more preventable than others.

The following shows 8 different kind of mistakes companies have made in the past, including examples, from which we can distil lessons and learn how to potentially avoid them.

After these 8 types will follow a description of the traits to be found in the kind of social media marketer that won’t fall into these mistakes.


Here are some errors in handling social media that do not even originate online, but can still end up there. This is scary, because you may be under the impression that if you take longer to get into the social media game, you can’t get burned there. As the examples below will show, this is far from the case.

Watch Your Ad Campaigns

An ad campaign taken the wrong way can explode online, as happened with numerous mom blogs in reaction to the “Motrin Mom” campaign that tried to light-heartedly play off the headache generating nature of motherhood.

A campaign with the best of intentions can still backfire, and the only way to have a chance of anticipating a backlash is with a focus group, or even an informal appeal to a small sample of your typical demographic.

Social platforms mean you have to be that much more careful, and if you are going to push the envelope, watch the online space and react quickly if a bad reacting trend emerges. There’s only so much of the damage control you can plan in advance, since you may have no idea what’s wrong until the backlash begins, so you just have to be adaptive and quickly reactive, hoping for the best.

Deal with Bad Products, Bad Service

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You just can’t get away with poor service anymore. If you neglect your clientele, eventually one of your victims will have a popular blog, Twitter feed, or other way of sharing their story. After United Airlines basically broke a guy’s guitar and didn’t seem to care, he wrote the United Airlines Broken Guitar song. Then they cared.

In response to an 8-year-old’s drawing of a jet-firetruck hybrid, Boeing sent a standardized form letter including the line “Like many large companies we do not accept unsolicited ideas.” This wasn’t even necessarily the poor treatment of a customer directly relative to the product or service offered, but it was still a poorly handled relationship with the public.

The answer is not necessarily anything social media tactic related, other than damage control once the incident has become public. The real answer is accepting that poor customer service is not an option for a company, especially a well-known brand. Take the time to actually communicate with the people that are willing to communicate with you.

Don’t Be Evil

Just as it’s harder to get away with poor product performance or service, it’s also harder to run a company that generally does social harm now that there are more ways than ever for people to talk about it. From Facebook’s coal-powered environmental damage, to Burger King palm oil, there’s just no hiding anymore. I won’t even bring social media tips into this and just say to stop unethical practices, you planet killer.

Handle Your Scandal

If something goes terribly wrong with one of your products or some public disaster is exposed, respond quickly and effectively, as Kryptonite did when it came to light that their bike locks could be easily opened with a Bic pen, sending out replacements right away.

This is not necessarily fundamentally different with social media, but the social tools force a reaction within a much quicker timeframe, and potentially across multiple channels. Also, smaller problems have a much greater chance of getting blown up than they have in the pre-social media past.

Sometimes things just go wrong – people know that – but depending on how you handle it, it can be a nice opportunity to show off your social media chops and seem like you care.


You may have some creative ideas that you think will bring the social media brand awareness you’ve heard of. But if you don’t think it through, or you’re dishonest in the campaign, you will face the repercussions.

Maintain Proper Customer Support Staff

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Social media means you are potentially communicating very regularly with the public. Just because it’s a daily, potentially casual role doesn’t mean you should take the position lightly. If you’re going to hire a younger whippersnapper to handle your customer support on newfangled social platforms, make sure you can trust them, otherwise you can end up like Vodaphone having to deal with the repercussions of a homophobic employee voicing opinions in your name.

There are ways to bend the rules and have someone speak while not necessarily speaking for the brand, but you still have to be careful, and anything blatantly discriminatory or harmful will come back to you and reflect poorly on your business.

Build Your Presence… Before It Gets Built For You

Whether you like it or not, you are already in the social media space. If you’re confident in saying “no I’m not”, then that just means you’re not the one controlling that space.

The last thing you want is to take so long to get into the social media game that a user gets there first and pretends to be you. Without an official site to draw the distinction, other users don’t know what’s real and what’s not, as happened with “Janet”, a made up Twitter profile said to represent ExxonMobil.

Just as fake Twitter profiles sometimes get made for celebrities, your company can be impersonated. This will not necessarily cause a major problem for you, as the truth will become clear soon enough, but you will be faced with a nuisance and your first step into social media will be on the defensive and showing you to be behind the times.

Let Go, But Not Completely

Letting a community be part of your campaign can be a great way to ensure that it spreads. People like to be creative, but this can sometimes lead to behavior getting out of hand. Social media is largely about letting go of complete control of the brand message, but that doesn’t mean that a certain amount of moderation is in order. Molson once ran a party photo contest, and got in hot water when the partying got too hard. That wasn’t smart.

Some reasonable planning ahead and thinking things through will prevent a lot, but just as with the Ad Campaign danger, at least be quick on the draw to at best stop things once you see they can get out of hand, at worst stop them when you start to get attention for your mistake.

Also, definitely be aware of the general criticism your company faces, and make sure the platform you’re creating for users to play with doesn’t offer an ideal space to voice this criticism. Chevy made just this mistake with their “Design Your Own Tahoe” campaign, where people could build their own Tahoe ads and used the space to talk about the environmental impact of these vehicles.

A well-executed user-generated content campaign can be a great way to leverage this new media space, but never forget that it is the Internet, and if there’s a way for something to be used, there’s a good chance there’s a way for it to be abused, and enough people over enough time will find that way.

Don’t Lie

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If you’re going to run a blog-driven campaign, don’t try to pass off your employees as “real” people. Wal-mart launched a “Wal-marting Across America” blog that created a backlash when exposed as marketing, as did L’Oreal’s fake blog and numerous others. The ruse won’t last forever, and people don’t like to feel deceived. They will make you pay.

Either be honest about your marketing, or let real people drive your campaigns and really let them do it, and be clear about the role you play. If you actually have a product or service people like, the deception is totally unnecessary. You have fans, and they will speak for your product better than you, and without any risk on your part.

If you have a product or service people don’t especially like, at least enough to be willing to talk about it on the web unprompted to their peers, then do you really think your campaign won’t stick out as a fraud? You’ll just compound your negative reputation.

Character Traits

The above examples show a variety of the types of problems you can face, and give hints as to how you can avoid them. But to put a more positive spin on things, let’s consider the traits of a social media marketer who is unlikely, or at least less likely, to fall into these kinds of traps.

instantShift - Lessons from Past Social Media Debacles

A Decent Human Being

If the people involved in your campaign are good natured, happy, accepting and open-minded people, you c an likely trust them to not offend people. The nicer the people that represent you are, the nicer you seem, and the more comfortable people will be giving you business.

Also, they (and you) should be generally honest people. Ideally, you’re not comfortable deceiving your audience. Failing that, the next best thing is to be aware that dishonesty and social media just don’t mix.

With Common Sense

Sometimes even the nicest person will be ineffective if they don’t have some street smarts, which means being able to think outside the box. People on your social media frontlines need to be sufficiently empowered to be able to address problems with a degree of flexibility, but also have the confidence and initiative to make decisions and think outside the box.

But a Bit Paranoid

Social media can be a powder keg. Given how much and how often communication happens, a person needs to be able to be comfortable communicating quickly, but still feel a need to check and check themselves again before speaking on the company’s behalf. A good social media marketer always asks “how can this be taken the wrong way?” and, with the previously mentioned common sense, be able to anticipate problems before they happen.

Which Means Being Passionate and Plugged In

Since problems can happen anyway, the social media marketer needs to be very much into the platforms on which they promote, maximizing the chances of understanding the audience involved and having the greatest chance of not alienating important people who can do damage if mistreated.

This also means having someone who enjoys being in the social media crosshairs, such that if things go wrong, they are the first to know, because they love it.

And Happy

Social media jobs are very much the right kind of job for certain people. When a social media marketer loves their job, good things happen. If they don’t, it’s just a matter of time before they say something they shouldn’t, sick of putting on a positive face for the business.

As you can see, the social media job isn’t easy. There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility, and the public can be very harsh and unforgiving. Plus, for many companies, it’s still quite new, and adapting to a new space where you are expected to engage with people more and more often can be difficult to maintain in the kind of non-stop real-time way that is often expected.

Thinking Ahead

So, you can expect that the more you are involved in social media, the greater your odds of falling into problems like the ones described at the beginning of this article. But, if you and your staff fit the positive descriptions of the social media marketer described in the second part, you stand a good chance of not only expanding your presence and brand online in amazing new ways, but you can potentially build enough of a positive reputation in advance to take the edge off times when things may go wrong.

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  1. Good post! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lesson learn’t.. Nice post on 8 lesson o learn

  3. Thank you Simon for your article. You are most kind and generous: “to take the edge off times when things may go wrong.” (may) Big Smile!

  4. Great tips for us.

  5. very useful tips. this is the first post which i read is useful from start till the end. every point is very well described and written in good details. thanks for sharing this beauty….

  6. It was a good presentation & tks for sharing!

  7. Always amazing posts from NVI, another Geek of Online Marketing Salutes you Simon.

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