10 Social Media Crises: The Good, bad & ugly

Just how do brands manage a social media crisis? How do you prevent a seemingly innocuous incident snowballing into a PR nightmare, and how do you win back the trust of your community? Heather Healy presented her advice at iStrategy and Jump London.

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Handling a crisis on social media relies on four key principles:

  • Prevention: The first line of defence is working to minimise the risk of a crisis occurring in the first place.
  • Preparation: Having a plan or procedure in place, ready to deploy, should a crisis occur.
  • Response: Putting that plan into action to react to the crisis.
  • Recovery: Recovering the brand to return back to normality.

The very best crisis management process is based upon this structure, in one guise or another and what we will see throughout this presentation is that having these procedures in place in advance can make a huge difference to how you are able to defuse a social media revolt.

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Brands that owned it

Which brands nailed it when it came to a social media crisis?


One of the best examples of social media management came from Bodyform, who capitalised on a joke directed at the brand and it’s apparent “false advertising” around what one man perceived to be a wonderful time of the month, where women could do fabulous things like bike riding, riding rollercoasters, dancing and parachuting.

Granted, this wasn’t a huge brand “crisis”; Bodyform was not about to appear on Watchdog, but it did offer a challenge to the brand.

Bodyform can’t realistically put measures in place to prevent this kind of critique of their brand, but they can prepare a beautifully constructed, measured and ultimately incredibly witty response.

The tactic used by Bodyform was brave but ultimately, their response and recovery was a total slam dunk. It showed the brand to be human, because it responded with humour.

Ruffles Crisps

Ruffles Crisps, part of the Frito-Lay empire and massive in the US, is also extremely popular in Brazil.

Last year, a jpg image published on Facebook did that scary thing and went “viral”. The jpeg, created by someone in Brazil, inferred that customers were being cheated by the brand due to the amount of ‘air’ in each packed of crisps. It was a claim that generated a lot of support amongst consumers, who all felt that they were being misled, and it presented a very real challenge to Ruffles.

Ruffles responded to this beautifully, because they know their product inside-out. With a clear vision of how the product is made, they were able to respond eloquently to this a graphic explaining how Ruffles are made and just why the air is needed – to protect the crisps! The graphic, published on Facebook, demonstrated the journey from factory to mouth. It was used to respond to those people who had complained in a sensitive way.

The brand even took this a step further and produced an enormous bag of Ruffles to evidence just how important the air is! They took it to the streets of Brazil for people to test out.

The Red Cross

If there is one thing that those of us who work for social media agencies fear more than any other, it is a post on the wrong client’s account. Gloria Huang was the person behind the rouge #gettingslizzered tweet, and she was clearly mortified.

But rather than completely freak out, the Red Cross were just so unbelievably cool with their response.

“We are an organization that deals with life-changing disasters and this wasn’t one of them”

This demonstrates a considered approach and perhaps a crisis management plan which has already dictated what should be said in a circumstance like this, as opposed to something that would be a genuine nightmare. As a result #gettingslizzerd inspired a wave of support for the Red Cross, brought them to the attention of twitter and resulted in increased donations.

The Red Cross’s rationale is so perfectly positioned. It is so smart and different that it stands out as very real, very human and just a drop in the ocean compared to what they deal with every day. This is a well-considered, excellently constructed response which responded to negative feedback, along the lines of “how could you be so stupid”, and changed it to a positive message, enabling them to not only recover but to receive donations in the process!


In one of the more recent cases of social media crisis, Asda found itself at the centre of a consumer backlash following its decision to stock a Halloween costume of an axe murderer, dubbed “Mental Patient”.

It featured a torn blood stained shirt, fake blood and a fake meat cleaver, on its Asda Direct site for £20, along with the strapline “Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume.”

Unsurprisingly, a Twitter outcry followed, which put Asda directly at the heart of a conversation about mental health.

Asda’s response was an example of good crisis management. Given that the furore had peaked at around 10pm, a swift response was issued with a genuine human apology and a big gesture to a relevant charity.

Asda, perhaps wisely in this situation, decided not to respond to all of the individuals who voiced their concerns, as no blanket tweet or reply could really enable them to respond to the droves of people who cited their own mental health problems and the offence the item had caused them.

The recovery has since put pressure on other retailers to remove similar products but in reality, this mess should never have happened. Good crisis management prevents these incidents from occurring in the first place.


The context of this story starts with an American Photographer, Brandon Stanton. Brandon is an innovative photographer, living in New York, who runs the Humans of New York project. The project aims to produce a photographic census of people living in New York and collects stories, quotes and inspiration from the people of the Big Apple. This project has grown to become an online collective.

He was approached by a DKNY representative in New York, who offered to pay for 300 photographs for $15,000. After seeking advice, he turned the offer down. His photographs were spotted in a DKNY store in Bangkok…. and you can guess the rest.

What happened next was a Facebook post that developed a firestorm, and left DKNY with something to seriously consider.

“I don’t want any money. But please SHARE this post if you think that DKNY should donate $100,000 on my behalf to the YMCA in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn. This donation would sure help a lot of deserving kids go to summer camp”

With such a public outcry and response from the powerful community around Humans of New York, they investigated the situation quickly. Whilst we obviously don’t know what went on behind closed doors at DKNY, their response to this post, within a few short hours was concise.

An articulate, planned response which wasn’t rushed, was well considered and didn’t go all the way with the requested donation. And that was it. No need for continued involvement or rationalising with those who thought they should have donated more.

Brandon didn’t get the 100K he was after, but he was adamant that the community around Humans of New York would. In just 72 hours, the community donated the money he’d asked for and DKNY’s (hopefully honest) mistake became part of the catalyst for a fantastic outcome. Would it have made a difference if DKNY had given the full amount? Who knows, they chose to donate wisely. Were people put off from buying from the brand? Perhaps, but their response was honest and quick and you can’t say fairer than that.


Uh oh. You know when the legend that is Gareth Malone isn’t happy, it isn’t good. The O2 blackout last year caused a lot of people to be upset and talk about it publically. On day one, O2 made the effort to respond to every tweet but with quite a blanket message to apologise and say that they were fixing the problem.

Some people reacted in humour but the longer the period of outage, the more riled the public became.

On day two, O2 had a stroke of genius, and made the brave decision to quite frankly take the piss out of the rude or aggressive responses they were getting from the public.

It was risky, but it was human. O2 will be more than used to complaints but perhaps not quite at that volume. It became an excellent PR stunt. It diverted people’s rage and enabled them to recover quickly once their service was back up and running. Handled with humour, there was a chance it could have gone too far, but the brand got away with it.

Brands that went home crying

But what about the total disasters?


Poor HMV. It makes me dreadfully sad that I can no longer go and peruse the official soundtrack to musicals section of their shop and instead, I have to buy all my music, DVDs and S Club 7 Posters from Amazon, but let’s face it, this is the kind of mistake that just should not happen.

Absolutely no consideration is given to planning or preparation. As I’m sure you’re aware, HMV went into administration in January. They knew it would happen, it’s not something that happens overnight. And a crisis from within ensued.

The staff at HMV rallied together to document, in real time, what was happening as they were losing their jobs. Perhaps one of HMV’s biggest failings here was to fire their social media team without taking back control of the social accounts first. The tweets were subsequently deleted, with no public response from HMV. This more than anything demonstrates a total lack of control, never mind planning or preparation, and a lack of belief or understanding in the power of social media – and a rogue social media manager.

Poppy’s tweets went on to highlight that senior management at HMV had resisted her attempts to educate them about the importance of social media to the business. She went on to explain that they’d ignored her feedback and that she hoped this would bring it to their attention.

HMV didn’t make a mistake giving someone who understood social media the reigns to their accounts; their mistake was not having control, borne out of a lack of understanding, and they paid the price.


A waitress in St Louis was the recipient of this comment from a local Pastor on her tip (applied because the group was large). She posted the image on Reddit and was immediately sacked for violating a customer’s privacy, which is within Applebees’ corporate policy.

And people got mad, really mad, about it.

Applebees responded publically on Facebook, reaffirming their stance on the policy, and made it clear they had to stick by it, all the while not realising they were totally undermining themselves because just the week before, when they published a written note from a customer, violating their privacy in the same way that the waitress had. The Facebook post where Applebees defended their stance based on upholding the privacy of their customers was absolutely annihilated, receiving 17,000 comments in a matter of hours. At 2.53am, an employee at Applebees decided to weigh into the debate with a lengthy and waffly comment (not really the right place to put further feedback, given that 1,000 comments were appearing per hour, most people wouldn’t see it) stating “we value our customers and are staff but if they violate our social media policy (and by the way here’s the bit of the policy that was violated) we will sack them and we will be right for doing so”.

Just to fan the flames, they also deleted a lot of negative feedback, prompting people to publish their distain across the internet, outside of the spaces Applebees could control. Just to fan them even more, they copied and pasted this message to hundreds of the negative comments:

“I understand why you’re upset, Manuel, I’m upset over the situation too”

It was still the middle of the night.

Then, they started arguing with people.

“No posts have been deleted”

Denial is 9/10th’s of the law. Oh dear.

This is a battle they couldn’t have won because the story was so relatable, so emotional and relevant. Some flexibility on company policy would also go a long way and perhaps an acknowledgement that waitresses don’t get what they deserve, as well as a reinstatement of the waitress, but policy is policy!

No plan, no control, no preparation, the most dreadful response (ill-considered, ill-timed and offensive) and a mess of a recovery. On this occasion, staying silent would probably have been better – and I don’t say that very often!


Why respond to your own crisis when you can respond to another?

The first thing Epicurious did was to set out its stall in support of the victims of the Boston marathon bombings. This, of course, looks legitimate and heartfelt but it’s simply capitalising on what’s being talked about heavily. Who cares that the brand’s thoughts are with those people?  It’s publishing for the sake of publishing – a total fail when it comes to social.

What this says to me is that there’s probably a few people who hold the keys to the Epicurious social accounts. This smacks of inexperience on the part of the tweeter, and naivety on the part of the senior bodies at Epicurious. But we’ve seen this before, HMV and Applebees both made the mistake of letting someone loose on their social accounts and having no control over the situation.  These tweets were eventually deleted by Epicurious.

“We truly regret that our earlier food tweets seemed insensitive. Our hearts and prayers are with the people of Boston.”

Uh oh, we’ve seen this one before. A copied and pasted apology to people they upset and that last sentence again. These apologies were subsequently deleted. The word “seemed” doesn’t really help the case either. The last tweet was offensive, insensitive and totally wrong, plain and simple.

Damage control, which feels sincere but a little too late.

This brand suffered from a poor judgement call. When putting together social content, it’s really important that the team sense check it past another person at the very least and at best put together a content plan which is signed off by a senior employee. This can’t always happen with reactive outward facing social content but it’s where this fell down.

The copied and pasted apology was poor form, all good crisis management is handled as personally as possible. People are smart – they can see other people’s tweets.

Amy’s Baking Company

Or otherwise known as the biggest social firestorm ever. This is a good one.

Amy’s Baking Company appeared on the US version of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. On the show, Gordon highlights the problems that struggling restaurateurs are having. With Amy, he met his match as she stole her waitresses tips, screamed at customers and at Gordon, who subsequently quit working with them, calling them “incapable of listening”. After the show aired, unsurprisingly people were unimpressed and took to Facebook to air their criticism. Amy and her husband decided the best way to respond was with an ALL CAPS tirade.

They started by replying to everyone, threatening them with police action. Instead of carefully considering who to reply to, whether it warranted a reply or not, they went nuts on every person that commented on every social network possible. Capital letters, shouting, total rage, misspellings – the full house.

If that wasn’t enough, they then unleashed hell on the reviewers, suggesting that fake reviews were being posted. Instead of reporting the reviews to Yelp, if they were confident they were fake, Amy’s Baking Company threatened people on review sites. It turns out they’ve been doing this for all negative reviews since 2010, so it would appear that their TV appearance didn’t solely prompt an irrational outburst.

They might have gone from just over 2,000 Facebook fans to 45,000, but for all the wrong reasons. I know that I certainly liked the page, but it doesn’t mean I’ll be stopping by the bakery for some brunch any time soon. Covered everywhere from Reddit to Buzzfeed, with internet memes circulating of Amy’s face on them, they became the laughing stock of the internet. That’s a big price to pay – you cannot correct the entire internet.

What can we learn?

The best brands are human, they’re open about their flaws, they recognise them and they embrace them. The best crisis management isn’t a robotic press release, it’s a human.

Remember the four key principles of social crisis management.

Prevention: Are you confident that a consumer can’t pick holes in every little thing? Put these checks in place and figure out what your risk factors are, they exist for every business.

Preparation: Mopping up the mess is important, so create scenarios and have control. Understand what a crisis is and what a crisis isn’t. This means you don’t have to rush around to find a solution at the last minute. For goodness sake, have ownership of your social accounts.

Response: Take some time out to absorb. Respond as quickly as possible and concisely. Make a call on whether you need to respond to everyone individually. Asda didn’t, O2 did – they both made the right call for their situation.

Recovery: Keep talking if you need to, shut up if you don’t. Making this call is critical. Reassurance and recognising your mistake and learning for next time are all part of the picture too. What would you do differently?

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  • Vicky commented on July 23, 2015:

    You might want to take a look at what is going on with Grazia’s Facebook at the moment. They published an awful article on breeding your pets for profit, and despite 2 weeks of intense backlash they have posted one very poor apology. No engagement on social media at all.

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