Social Media Crises

Social media has connected old friends, new friends, and companies with customers. But it has also created an environment where companies can permanently damage their brand if they post a culturally insensitive or ill-researched advertisement online and are not prepared for the social media onslaught that follows. There are hundreds of examples of brands with this problem, and the more popular that social media becomes, the more noticeable and rememberable these slip-ups become.

When a crisis happens, there are two ways it can be resolved. First, the company responds in an honest and transparent way and repairs relationships with their consumers. These examples usually happen because the company has a tested and true social media crisis management plan and stick to it. Second, they either do not have a plan or do not follow the plan, and end up damaging their brand and consumer relationships, possibly to the point of no return.

Some prominent examples from recent days are Pepsi’s commercial with Kendall Jenner, and United Airlines with both the leggings incident and the video that showed Dr. David Dao being dragged off his flight. These are crises that created an uproar across the planet, with many people asking the companies questions about their actions on social media.

At the start of these crises, with the exception of Dr. Dao, consumers weren’t ripping the companies apart. So what happened that caused people to begin to hate on the companies?

It’s simple really. The companies did not reply to their consumers in a way that satiated their thirst for an explanation (pun intended). The oldest example I have is the United Airlines leggings incident. People were upset with United for appearing to police the clothing choices of young girls, and they loudly told United about their fears. United responded with a tweet only saying:

For some, this was enough to convince them that United Airlines was not in the wrong. But for many, it was not enough. This was because they had not taken offense with the dress code, they had taken offense with the fact that the girls were not even teenagers, but were being told they couldn’t wear certain articles of clothing. These consumers were the ones who began blowing up the hashtag #teamleggings and asking United Airlines why they had a sexist policy in place.

Without going into how this was (or wasn’t) sexist, the point is that United was not paying attention to why consumers kept making a big deal out of this incident. Their social media team almost definitely had a crisis plan in place, but it wasn’t enough. They kept sending out the same response to everyone, regardless of the sentiment expressed in the tweet. In this instance, this was one of the worst things the team could have done. They never seemed to step back and think, “Well, maybe it’s not that people aren’t understanding the policy, maybe there’s another issue at play here.” They never wavered from their response and so consumers kept getting more and more angry at United Airlines.

On the subject on Pepsi, I don’t think there is not enough room in this blog to talk about all the ways that Pepsi went wrong in their commercial staring Kendall Jenner, from the apparent lack of research, to their social media presence after, and the fact that they deleted the commercial across every platform. In my opinion, there were a lot of things that Pepsi did wrong in preparing and making the commercial, and in the way that they responded to people’s concerns after it aired.

Then United Airlines had another social media crisis, not even three weeks after the leggings incident. Several people recorded on their phones as Dr. Dao was dragged, bloody, off his flight. Besides the repercussions of people getting understandably upset that that event ever took place, people became even more mad after United tweeted a statement from the CEO, Oscar Munoz.

His use of the phrase “having to re-accommodate these passengers” is what set off social media once more, with many questioning exactly what he thought accommodating passengers meant. But all in all, consumer’s issues with his statement pale in comparison to their anger over the treatment of Dr. Dao. This particular incident is believed to have caused irreparable damage to the branding of United Airlines. It is ironic when you think about their slogan, “Fly the Friendly Skies”. At least they weren’t actually in the air, I guess.

Social media has a lot of power in today’s world, and that’s not going away anytime soon. Companies are going to have to think long and hard about their social media crisis management plan and make sure that their social media team understands when to stick to the plan, and how to recognize when the plan isn’t fixing anything and needs to be ditched in favor of something else. Otherwise they are going to end up damaging their brand, and create more problems than they can fix.


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