How to avoid social media #massivefails

By Benjamin Haslem

Over the past 24 hours two major social media faux pas have drawn widespread public attention.

One for its insensitivity to loved ones of car accident victims; the other for creating the impression that white skin is better than black, inviting the obvious allegation of racism.

Both, again raise the question: What can organisations do to minimise social media crises?

The first blunder, was a tweet by New Zealand police using a GIF of Michael Scott from the US television series The Office to convey how officers felt when telling people that their loved one had been killed in a motor vehicle accident.


he tweet triggered an immediate reaction, with accusations the tweeter was “tone deaf” - a common pejorative used on social media to label someone as immoral, unethical, cruel, holding an opinion contrary to the virtuous, (insert your adjective of choice).

New Zealand police deleted the tweet and apologised.

"We quickly realised it was wrong and insensitive and it was immediately deleted. Thx for feedback," the force tweeted.

he second “social media fail” was skincare brand Dove’s Facebook video ad run in the US showing images of a black woman taking off her brown t-shirt and turning into a white woman in a white t-shirt.

The white woman then removes her tee and morphs into a third woman, with a darker complexion than the second.

The social media rebuke was swift, with comparisons made between the ad and those run in the US in the late 19th century of a black child pictured in a bath tub while a white child offers him a bar of soap. After using the soap, the black child looks delighted to see that his skin has turned white.

Dove immediately apologised for having “missed the mark” with the Facebook ad.


This week’s gaffe was not Dove’s first ‘offence’.

In 2011, the brand apologised for an ad for Dove VisibleCare body wash, which seemed to show a black woman as the “before” photo and a white woman as the “after” photo, with “more beautiful skin”. 

A year later, it was in the bad books again for advertising Summer Glow Lotion as for “normal to dark skin”.

It is highly likely the decision to post the Dove advertisements was made over a time by several people. 

The individual who posted the ad on Facebook shares some of the blame (though they’d probably use the Nuremberg defence) but the mistake must be owned by everyone involved in the decision-making process.

As for the NZ Police, the tweet appears more spur of the moment.

So how can companies and organisations avoid posting inappropriate social media content?

It is now well-established communication best-practice to have a comprehensive social media policy of which all staff are aware – remember, staff will often disclose they work for you on their private social media accounts and all the “these views are my own and not necessarily those of my employer” disclaimers won’t save you when it all goes south.

These guidelines give you wriggle room so you don’t have to blame an employee if an innocent human error damages your brand. 

Our Social Times’ Paul Roberts says the guidelines must make staff fully aware of what’s expected of them:

  • Personal accounts: Are staff members allowed to associate themselves with the brand when posting to their personal accounts? Do they need a disclaimer?
  • Sensitive information: What kind of information is okay for the public domain? Customer data is an obvious no-no, but things like new staff hires and office parties sit in a grey area and need to be clarified.
  • Copyright: A thorny issue and one that could get your brand into a lot of trouble. Copyright laws can be incredibly complex, so a clear policy written in plain English is crucial.
  • Tone of voice: Most brands these days encourage regular discourse with their customers. But are staff members aware of how that discourse should be written? Draw up tone of voice guidelines.
  • Firefighting: If you have a crisis management policy then make sure all relevant staff members are aware of exactly what their role is in the event of a crisis.

It’s also crucial to train staff in the correct use of social media. Managers cannot assume that even active social media users know how to use the platforms appropriately in a business context.

Jerry Kane, Associate Professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management, Boston College says many companies use interns or recently-graduated university students to staff their social media efforts. 

“That’s a risk: because these inexperienced employees are not well versed in their new company’s organizational culture or strategy, it is often difficult for them to meet organizational objectives with social media initiatives,” Prof Kane says.

“Undergraduate students typically have a strong procedural understanding of social media tools.
“They use social media frequently (and) because of this sophisticated procedural understanding, most think they understand social media well.”

Prof Kane says companies may find it easier and more effective to train existing managers about social media than to teach new employees about the strategic goals and direction of the company.

“Likewise, the most effective organisational social media initiatives may be partnerships between younger employees demonstrating and experimenting with social media technologies while more experienced employees harness that enthusiasm and those ideas to give them strategic direction,” he says. 

“This brings together the best of both worlds, combining procedural and strategic know-how.”
One often over-looked piece of insurance is appointing social media managers who possess high degrees of empathy.

Brewster Stanislaw, founder of Inside Social and now VP of Product+Strategy at Bizible says a social media manager needs to understand a brand's audience as deeply as possible, with a special focus on how they communicate. 

“This requires a very high degree of empathy and the ability to understand the audience — including their tastes and habits — even if these are fundamentally different than their own,” Stanislaw says.

This needs to go deeper than just understanding your customers, clients and target audience; it needs to involve an acute awareness of how words and actions can affect others.

If you lack tact, tread wearily.

This won’t just limit the likelihood the person responsible for hitting the post button doesn’t cause embarrassment by posting offensive content it also increases the likelihood they will seek the counsel of others within the organisation before acting.

Another key to avoiding mishaps is thorough research. Just ask Coca-Cola.

In late 2015, the soft drink giant posted a festive map of Russia, replete with Christmas trees.

Only problem was, they left out Crimea, annexed by Moscow in March 2014. This generated a bombardment of criticism in Russia, forcing Coke to apologise. The company re-posted the map with Crimea added.

Only problem was Ukraine also claims sovereignty over Crimea and there was an immediate call for boycott of Coca-Cola products in that country. 

robably best not to post maps of Russia as part of your social media marketing efforts.

Finally, and this just seems so obvious, don’t leverage disasters or a death to promote your brand or product on social media. This happens with alarming regularity.

Such as herehere, and here.
No matter how many safeguards you put in place, nothing is certain.

For that reason, every company or organisation should have a crisis management plan for handling social media emergencies and test it via a simulation exercise.
here are several online social media simulation software products that create a real-time crisis.