As 2017 draws to a close, it’s time to start my annual search for the top five biggest social media crises of the year. It’s all part of the process of getting ready for my yearly crisis communications lectures at Leicester University. It’s also great fun – and a good learning opportunity – recalling the unintentional but avoidable communication errors of some of the world’s biggest brands. Here are my top five, do you agree?
The brand went viral on social media in early May in its on-going attempt to try and make women more comfortable with their bodies. They decided they were going to redesign their shampoo bottles to reflect different body types, which in turn had completely the opposite effect and turned into a social disaster! To many women, this indirectly confirmed that there was a ‘best’ or ‘right’ body type after all. The question on everyone’s lips was: ‘Do you choose the bottle that matches your body type?’
After this year’s Boston Marathon the company tweeted: “Congrats, you’ve survived the Boston Marathon!” which inadvertently recalls imagery of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. An understandable Twitter storm followed before Adidas deleted the tweet as soon as they realised the mistake. Some damage had already been done when they fulsomely apologised for the “insensitive subject line”.
As I’m sure all will recall, back in February, there was a major blunder at the Oscars where the award for Best Picture was given to the wrong film. It turned out it wasn’t the fault of one of the presenters, the error was caused by PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant Brian Cullinan and somewhat appropriately social media. He had one job and that was to make sure the right cards went into the right envelopes but he became distracted by Twitter and gave one of the presenters, Warren Beatty, the wrong envelope. Highly embarrassing for an organisation who’s reputation depends on accuracy.
2. United Airlines
This is probably the most well-known crisis from this year. It all stemmed from a video of a passenger being dragged off a plane by security, when he was chosen at random to give up the seat he’d booked and paid for. This video is terrible for the brand and how they handled it was even worse. The video ended up going viral on the internet and making it to all of the main news channels. The video was bad enough but when the United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz attempted to make the standard PR apology, instead of taking full responsibility for their terriblly heavy-handed actions he bizarrely congratulated his staff for following the correct procedures and called the bloodied passenger belligerent.
This originally started back in 2015 when at an internal meeting CEO Ethan Spiegel brushed off the idea of increasing support overseas by stating: “This app is only for rich people. I don’t want to expand into poor countries like India and Spain.” The comments were a little surprising coming from the creator of an app that is mainly free. The information later arose in April of this year when a former employee told Variety magazine about Spiegel’s rather bizarre statement. This caused an uproar in India where a #BoycottSnapchat campaign started on Twitter. Additionally existing users also uninstalled the app and left a 1-star rating.
Apart from learning from these crises, it’s interesting to think what long-term impact they actually had on the affected companies. This is why I’ve given Snapchat the unwanted No. 1 ranking. The other four certainly caused embarrassment to the company, knocked staff morale, impacted on share prices and reduced sales for a while but it’s the Snapchat example that will have long-term effects.