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Spectacular Social Media Blunders & The Lessons Learned

Remember the days when getting angry meant writing a letter, putting it in a drawer, re-reading it next morning, and only then deciding whether to send it?

Well they’re gone, same as rabbit ear antennas, carbon paper and eight tracks. Social media tools have armed everyone with a rapid response arsenal, as the following companies found out the hard way.

Write at Your Own Risk

It sounds like the start of a Leno monologue. A woman pastor walks into a restaurant, flock in tow. After dessert, the waitress brings the check, which says Applebee’s adds 18 percent for large parties. The pastor writes on the check: “I only give God 10 percent, why would I give you 18?”

Nothing that followed was funny for those involved. The waitress returned to the kitchen, where a co-worker snapped a shot of the pastor’s scribbled message and posted it online. The fallout was swift. The pastor was mortified, the restaurant fired the employee, and the public stir-fried Applebee’s on Facebook and demanded the woman be rehired.

Though 15,000-plus have liked a Facebook page called, “Hire Chelsea Back,” Applebee’s has not caved, saying that posting the picture was unprofessional and a violation of a patron’s privacy.

Lessons learned:

  • Make sure employees know your company’s social media policy, that it’s written in plain language, and that penalties for violations are clearly spelled out.
  • If a crisis erupts, respond quickly. Be transparent, definitive and unemotional.

All Welcome? Really?

Spa World sounds like the place to relax, but the Centerville, Va. club wound up taking a social media mud bath after tossing out a transgendered woman. As reported in the Washington Post, when the woman later complained to the Better Business Bureau, the spa wrote: “It is our policy to not accept any kinds of abnormal sexual oriented customers to our facility such as homosexuals, or transgender(s).”

The ill-phrased statement led to plenty of outrage, painful backtracking by management, and the kind of publicity that can sink a spa. The owner blamed the incident on an employee’s vocabulary error.

Lessons learned:

  • Pick the right person to respond during a crisis.
  • Social media can rapidly and exponentially extend a conversation you want to die a quick death.

Mess in the Kitchen

During a presidential debate last October, a KitchenAid employee sent an offensive tweet about President Obama’s grandmother from the corporate account. It said, “Obamas gma even knew it was going to b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president.”

The person who posted thought he was tweeting from a personal account rather than the company account. Several hours later, a senior exec tweeted an apology, saying the original “was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won’t be tweeting for us anymore.”

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t put the keys to the castle in irresponsible hands.
  • Acknowledging the error and a fast, contrite response can save further embarrassment and a prolonged firestorm of bad PR.

Super Bowl Slam Dunk

When the lights went out during the Super Bowl, the quick-thinking PR team at Oreo showed how to do it right, quickly composing a photo tweet that capitalized on the Superdome power failure. Other companies did the same, but Oreo’s simple message – “You can still dunk in the dark” – got the most attention and was retweeted thousands of times.

As AdAge put it, “For all the planning and millions of dollars that go into the creation of Super Bowl commercials, arguably the best ad of the game last night was a tweet.”

Lessons learned:

  • Be ready to capitalize on events that already have huge audiences.
  • Take the time to set up a quick approval process for such situations.
  • Remember Will Rogers, who said, “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.”


Spa World news video.

Spa World Facebook discussion.

Oreo Super Tweet.

Read more posts by Steve Piacente, a former print journalist and correspondent. Steve is a blogger for JenningsWire.