The Internet never forgets: When social media campaigns go wrong

by Charlotte Graham-McLay / 27 June, 2018

The police tweet a joke about fatal car crashes. The Hurricanes reference a bloody civil war for a marketing gimmick. US Airways posts porn. Social media is no longer new territory, so why do so many professionals still get it so badly wrong? Charlotte Graham-McLay investigates.

“Are you f***ing serious?” one Twitter user enquired of Hillary Clinton.

“Tone deaf,” “out of touch,” and “pandering,” said others. Then the world’s media got in on the act.

“Cool gal Hillary Clinton wants to know how you feel about student loans, in emoji,” crowed Mashable.

Nearly three years after the tweet in question, one of the social media staffers who helped craft it said the post was a good idea that backfired, simply because of the platform on which it was broadcast.

Emmy Bengtson was the social media deputy director on Clinton’s presidential campaign, and is familiar with that feeling known to anyone who has run a social media account for even the smallest local brand: the sudden, sinking realisation that you have posted a terrible mistake, whether it’s a typo or a comment that reads two ways (and one of them’s offensive).

“The feeling where the blood rushes out of your legs,” says Bengtson.

The Clinton emoji tweet that caused all the fuss had earlier been posted on Instagram, where a culture of responding to posts with emoji was not only tried and tested but also frequently used by other media companies, including Buzzfeed, Bengtson says.

On Instagram, the idea “went really well; it was one of our top posts,” she says. “So because it went so well, we took it to Facebook and Twitter as well. And that … did not go so well.”

The New Zealand Police swiftly deleted this tweet.

Bengston has plenty of company; social media gaffes remain part of the landscape the world over. Notable New Zealand screw-ups include the Police tweeting a joke about fatal car crashes and the Hurricanes referencing the Land Wars as a marketing gimmick. Porn continues to be accidentally posted surprisingly frequently - US Airways being just one of the companies that's ended up blushing. But Facebook has been around for 14 years and social media teams are a part of any decent-sized business, so why do the mistakes continue?

It’s not always a simple case of someone cocking up, although occasionally, joyfully, it is.

More often, say social media managers, epic fails come down to misunderstanding the audience or the platform, poor communication at a company where social media - and the team who create it - is not valued, or a work culture where speaking up is discouraged.

Frith Wilson-Hughes is the social communications manager for Spark, and she’s adamant that she’s the “downbuzz cynic” of her team; the one who picks apart every social media idea to look for ways it could backfire, or to cull content that isn’t important.

A work environment where it’s okay to speak up when you spot a problem, she says, is one way to prevent social media disasters like the Dove campaign, in which a black woman took off her skin-coloured T-shirt to turn into a white woman. The ad was widely decried as racist.

“It’s beyond me how some of these things come out,” Wilson-Hughes says, adding that diversity in teams creating campaigns would help companies spot obvious pitfalls, especially when depicting marginalised groups.

“There are people who would have seen the Dove ad and had a problem with it but didn’t speak up and no one else in the room said anything,” she says.

“I know that if I had a problem with something at Spark, it wouldn’t go out - even though I’m not the most powerful person in the room.”

Despite wielding the passwords to accounts that reach thousands, or even millions, of social media users, the staffers who run companies’ channels are hardly ever the most powerful people in the room.

Dr Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, has conducted research that reveals how companies might misunderstand or underestimate the skills required for social media jobs.

Duffy and her co-author analysed job ads for social media positions and found little emphasis placed on the strategic and technical know-how required to avoid clangers, like the Pepsi ad in which model Kendall Jenner seemingly solves race relations in America by offering a police officer a can of soft drink at a protest, or Adidas congratulating people on "surviving" the Boston Marathon, four years after bombs exploded at the race's finish line killing three.


Instead, job ads prioritised soft skills - such as performing emotional labour to mediate between companies and their sometimes unhappy or abusive customers - and deployed words like “passion”, “obsession”, and “flexibility”. That basically meant, Duffy says, that prospective applicants needed to be willing to have boundaries eroded and accept the task of managing a company’s social media would be a 24/7, all-consuming job.

Duffy found these jobs tended to be coded with “feminine” traits, which is in keeping with the 70 to 80 percent of social media workers who reportedly identify as women. And while social media professionals were required to deal with the “negativity, hatred and meanness that happens online,” she says, they often found their skills undervalued. “Companies do often recognise its value, but dismiss the creativity and strategy. One of my interviewees said, ‘Employers think this is something any young 20-year-old girl can do.’”

A complex social fiefdom with a barrage of unwritten rules develops on every social media platform, just like they do in real life spaces. Some reckon more than one post a day on Instagram makes you a narcissist, for example. On Twitter, woe betide those using hashtags - a tool the platform has prominently provided - with too much sincerity or enthusiasm, or employing more than one per post with anything other than biting sarcasm.

Just like the unwritten rules in high school, these social media rules can be dense and opaque for newcomers. It means social media is not a job that can be done by just anyone, says Megan Whelan, now RNZ’s digital editor who was previously the organisation’s first community engagement editor. “If you’re a business and you’re trying to use social media to get customers, you have to balance the cost-benefit of having someone do it full-time, because it’s a full-time job,” she says.

Otherwise, like the UK pub chain Wetherspoons did recently, you might as well shut down your accounts and save yourself the hassle.

“The reason [our team is] good on social media is because we spend all of our time on Twitter. We know what the audience will like,” says Whelan.

While audiences like humour, those spoken to for this story agreed there was almost nothing riskier. Jokes can turn into disasters one of two ways, says Whelan. “Your joke wasn’t funny, or it was accidentally racist or otherwise offensive.”

She recalls making a horror movie reference when posting a news story to Facebook about a horror film director she admired, who had just died. Called out by readers, who thought it was too soon, she amended the post with an apology, and explained how the text had been changed.

“Social is so often contextless and open to interpretation, so you’ve got to be really careful,” she says.

Emmy Bengtson agrees. Working on the Clinton campaign and in another role for the US health organisation Planned Parenthood, she knew she had to be careful as both were polarising causes, with some social media users ready to criticise any post the organisation made.

“You’re always thinking, how can this be twisted, how can it be taken out of context, whether it’s in their bad faith or because we screwed something up,” she says. “At Planned Parenthood, we would think, ‘Are we telling this story in a week that’s sensitive to all other kinds of stories?’”

For the Clinton campaign, Bengtson says, the team wanted to make sure they weren’t being “too flippant” in their posts. “We put ourselves through the gauntlet of how this could blow up in our face,” she says. “We called it the backfire test.”

Spark's Frith Wilson-Hughes has run campaigns the company knew would be controversial, and has used them as an opportunity to engage with and educate customers - even when they disagreed. Last year, Spark ran a Father’s Day ad that profiled a single mother. The reactions the campaign got on social media “owned my life for several days,” she says, but in this case, the controversy was welcome. “Our CEO called me and said, ‘Are you ok?’ But I was so happy to have those conversations, because it offended people in the right way.”

Likewise, when Spark decided to do something for Pride, Wilson-Hughes and other LGBT staffers at the company badly wanted to create a campaign that would go beyond the type of rainbow symbol and slogan that often sees companies criticised for corporatising gay rights. Spark partnered with community-based support service OUTline, and made a video campaign profiling a young family with two dads.

“I was expecting homophobia, but I wasn’t expecting to have quite so many conversations with people inside and outside the company,” says Wilson-Hughes. She replied to the ad’s detractors with facts and studies, photos from her own wedding to her wife, and, in one memorable instance, responded to a customer who said they were leaving Spark because of its support for the LGBT community with one word: “Bye”.

“When you’re talking to someone on social media, you’re not just talking to one person - there are other people reading those comments,” she says.

But for every company carefully navigating social media, there is an IHOP.

Earlier this month, the American chain restaurant formerly known as the International House of Pancakes announced it was rebranding as the International House of Burgers, in a fizzer of an announcement that followed a period of intense and, ultimately, unjustified build-up.

IHOP Promotes Burgers By ‘Changing’ Name to IHOB, Gets Reaction,” the New York Times said, adding the savage subhead “a 21st century marketing success story.”

Wendy’s responded to the news in a tweet that got more engagement than IHOP’s initial reveal.

While a misjudged joke or a hot-headed response by a social media manager having a crap day on the corporate account are fairly understandable, it’s the all-around poor campaigns, like IHOP’s, that remain a mystery for the ages.

“Why didn’t they hire someone who was experienced in doing that kind of funny campaign?” asks a baffled Bengtson. “Instead they did this terrible job, and they weren’t ready to take the backlash.”

This article was first published on RNZ's The Wireless.

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