The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (but Mostly the Ugly) of Social Media Gaffes

Social media has changed the way people and companies communicate. Today, companies have access to billions of potential customers and are able to actually engage in meaningful conversations, create brand ambassadors, and provide an outlet for people to provide real (and real-time) feedback about their brand.

But, with the good comes the bad, and there have been many instances when brands, and sometimes even the social networks themselves, come under fire for taking things too far. In the wake of the tragic events in Paris this month, Facebook created a well-intentioned photo filter of the French flag that intended to show solidarity with the French people. While many users changed their photos to show blue, blanc et rouge, a seemingly equal number decried the social network’s decision to support France, but to effectively ignore recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and Mali.

The debate continues, but we can learn from past social media disasters so we don’t continue to repeat them in the future. Let’s take a stroll through the hall of fame of cringe-worthy social media blunders. Here’s what NOT to do:

1) Don’t use a trending hashtag unless you are 100 percent certain you know what it means.

After the tragic shooting at an Aurora, Colo. Movie Theater in 2012 where 12 people were killed, and 70 injured, Celeb Boutique tweeted the following:Aurora*Source: Huffington Post

In this case, there did not seem to be malicious intent, but ignorance is no excuse. Know what the hashtag means, and why it’s trending before you use it.

Last year, DiGiorno Pizza also put its foot in its mouth after using the #WhyIStayed hashtag, resulting from the much-publicized domestic violence charges against former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice for punching (unconscious) his fiancée (later wife) Janay Palmer.


* Source: Adweek

2) Don’t EVER use a tragic event to promote your company, a product, really anything. Listen to the very true words of BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick: “Brands, repeat after me: You probably don’t need to post about 9/11.”

The specific incident Broderick was referencing above is one from Build-A-Bear Workshop:


*Source: BuzzFeed

Yikes. There was a serious lack of judgment with this one, and the fact that this was likely viewed and approved by more than one person is shocking. The lesson here? Don’t use tragic world events to promote your products. Just don’t do it. Ever.

Another head-shaker happened at the hands of Kmart’s Twitter feed after the horrific Newtown school shooting in December of 2012. While the tweet itself was not the terrible part, adding a promotional hashtag referencing toys was unbelievably insensitive and inappropriate:


*Source: Business Insider

3) Don’t post a Q&A or ask for social response unless you have thought about, and can handle, potential backlash.

Last year, in the midst of facing numerous sexual assault allegations, Bill Cosby actually went on Twitter and asked his followers to “meme him.” As you might imagine, the move resulted in mostly unflattering memes relating to the situation. A pretty tone-deaf move:


*Source: New York Post

4) Don’t get too political (unless you are a politician)

An MSNBC employee lost their job in late 2014 after making a political comment about an otherwise adorable Cheerios commercial. The Cheerios ad depicted a family having breakfast, and the mother in the ad happened to be white, and the father black. The tweet read:


*Source: Politico

5) If you are posting a photo, make sure you know what it is.

Over Independence Day in 2014, an American Apparel employee posted a photo on the company’s account of the 1986 Challenger explosion. According to the company, the social media manager who posted the photo was born after 1986, and therefore didn’t know any better. Seems like a weak excuse, and all the more reason to have a system of checks and balances in your social media program.

Challenger*Source: Mashable

To give some credit to social media managers everywhere, trying to find new and interesting ways to communicate with constantly connected people cannot be an easy task. Tracking what’s trending, who’s trending and engaging with very short attention spans is not for the faint of heart. Their job may be tough, but it doesn’t always excuse the jaw dropping gaffes.

Think before you post, and remember that there are real people, real tragedies, real feelings, and real wounds that are just below the surface of social media’s glittery exterior – act accordingly.