When social media backfires

Inspired by the backlash against Match.com’s recent ad and # campaign, Alison Krog has 6 golden rules to avoid stirring up a social media storm

A freckled face and red hair hasn’t hampered the likes of Lily Cole, Julianne Moore and Jessica Chastain. But it’s a look that did no end of damage to Match.com since using it as part of its recent #loveyourimperfections campaign. The dating site was accused of bullying, with typical responses on its Twitter feed being: ‘@Match I'm proud of my, so called, imperfections! And I don't need a bunch of over-paid ad men to point it out! #loveyourimperfections’.

It’s just the latest in a history of hashtag howlers and facebook flubs that suggest some brands just aren’t learning from others’ mistakes. Done brilliantly, social media helps build community, extends your reach and promotes your message. Done badly, it can inflict instant and sometimes irreparable harm. Just remember:

Don’t: Leave room for misinterpretation
Posted back in 2012, Susan Boyle unwittingly invited the world to her ‘Anal Bum Party’ via a PR team who came up with the promotional hashtag #susanalbumparty for the singer’s new album launch. Then just a year later, when former PM Margaret Thatcher died, it was singer Cher’s fans who were in a frenzy of grief thanks to the hashtag #nowthatchersdead.

Don’t: Fish for compliments
McDonald’s scored a spectacular fail with its #McDStories campaign when it naively imagined that customers would only have positive experiences to share in its desire to spread good news about itself. Instead, Twitter was awash with negativity from tweeters such as @MuzzaFuzza, who commented: “I haven’t been to McDonalds in years, because I’d rather eat my own diarrhea”.

Don’t: Court controversy
Last year, as part of its ongoing #upforwhatever campaign, Anheuser-Busch created a label that assured Bud Light was "the perfect beer for removing 'no' from your vocabulary for the night." Twitter users were quick to accuse Budweiser of promoting rape culture and the label was soon withdrawn.

Don’t: Expect to triumph over tragedy
Inappropriate product promotion did no favours for US telecommunications corporation AT&T on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2013 when it tweeted an image of one of its smartphones in front of the New York skyline, with lights signifying the World Trade Centre, and the caption ‘Never Forget’. The tweet was quickly removed, but its impression not so easily forgotten. China’s social messaging network Sina Weibo was similarly outraged when Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing in 2014 and Volvo posted: ‘The rescue operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane is in full swing. Passenger safety is also a top priority at Volvo Cars, let’s pray together for the 239 lives.’

Don’t: Hi-jack a hashtag without understanding its context
#WhyIStayed was originally created by US HR manager Beverly Gooden after viewing footage of NFL player Ray Rice punching his fiancée Janay Palmer in 2014. A victim of an abusive marriage, Gooden saw it as a channel for women to share their side of domestic abuse stories. Nestle frozen pizza brand DiGiorno was quick to hijack its popularity, but clearly didn't do its homework before tweeting, ‘#whyistayed You had pizza’. Its subsequent response noted: ‘A million apologies. Did not read what the hashtag was about before posting’.

Don’t: Give – with conditions
Cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s has been supporting Breakfast Clubs in UK schools for the past 16 years. But all that goodwill risked being forgotten when it posted the Tweet ‘1 RT (retweet) = 1 breakfast for a vulnerable child’ as part of its Give a Child a Breakfast campaign. Another brand accused of distasteful self-promotion was Australian electronics retailer Bing Lee following the Queensland floods in 2011 when it offered to donate one dollar to help support victims for every person who liked its Facebook page – with a cap of $10,000.

So before you Tweet or post, just pause for a moment. Visit twubs.com, where you can search and register a hashtag, or find what’s trending at hashtagify.me. Craft any hashtags with care – then re-read them from all angles. And make sure your instant message doesn’t have lasting, damaging consequences for your brand.