Whether it's a big scandal or a social media slip-up, companies are always having their mistakes go viral. Here's a step-by-step guide for dealing with the fallout.

Brands are only... well, they're not human. But the people who run their marketing are human, and everyone makes mistakes. Whether it's a big scandal or a social media slip-up, brands are invariably going to screw up. In the digital age, those screw-ups have a strong possibility of going viral. However, brands also have a strong possibility of bouncing back.

Chuck Brinker, director of research solutions at SurveyMonkey, thinks it's human nature to forgive, no matter how mad someone is at you or your brand. Should you find yourself in such a situation, here are five tips, listed chronologically from the initial reaction to making sure your company doesn't have another instance of venomous virality in the future.

"Unless you've intentionally deceived someone as a business or a brand, the willingness to forgive is pretty great. But you have to deliver. Whatever you do next has to be right," says Brinker.

1. Respond quickly

According to a brand engagement study Sprinklr conducted last summer, consumers who contact a business on social media with a question or a complaint expect an answer within the hour. When something goes viral for negative reasons, it’s kind of like that, except on a grand scale. By reacting as quickly as possible, brands can reclaim control, rather than allowing the negativity to fester.

Coca-Cola is a good example of this. The soft drink giant’s Super Bowl marketing campaign theme was bringing more positivity to the Internet. Anyone who’s ever read the comments on a YouTube video will probably agree that yeah, the Internet could use a bit more of that.

As part of the campaign, Coca-Cola encouraged people to tag negative Tweets with #MakeItHappy. (Read more...) automated system edited the negative Tweets into cheerful cartoonish pictures made of ASCII code. Gawker got really negative, building a bot that tweeted passages from Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf.


Within hours, Coca-Cola removed the Tweets and disabled the generator. "The Internet is what we make it, and we hoped to inspire people to make it a more positive place … Building a bot that attempts to spread hate through #MakeItHappy is a perfect example of the pervasive online negative Coca-Cola wanted to address in this campaign," the brand said in a statement.

2. ...but not so quickly that you haven't thought your strategy through

The anti-Semitic retweets were more Gawker's doing than that of Coca-Cola. More than anything, the brand was guilty of a bone-headed oversight. Just three months earlier, the New England Patriots celebrated being the first NFL team to reach one million Twitter followers with an automated system that allowed fans to personalize team jerseys with their Twitter handles.

Lacking filters, the system tweeted out a racial slur. Given how recently this happened, Coca-Cola should have had enough sense to know that society can't be trusted with complete autonomy on social media. However, the brand handled the aftermath well: they were brief, contrite and tied the statement in with the campaign.

Contrasting with Coca-Cola was Tinder, which demonstrated the fine line between "reacting quickly" and "having a knee-jerk reaction" back in August. Responding to a Vanity Fair article criticizing the app's role in "the dating apocalypse," Tinder fired off a series of Tweets appearing defensive at best and unhinged at worst.


If the dating app had thought more about how to respond, the result surely would have been more composed and less manic. And a less manic response surely would have resulted in much less negative attention. Written that same day, a Wired article entitled, Tinder Completely Freaked Out on Twitter, was shared more than 4,700 times on Facebook and Twitter.

3. Own up to your mistakes

As president of Ogilvy & Mather Advertising in New York, Adam Tucker works with some of the largest, most iconic brands in the world. He's managed to avoid any big marketing follies throughout his career, though he's certainly seen plenty of them. His best advice for brands on the outs with social media is to take ownership.

"Typically, the agency and the client do a lot of soul searching about what they could have done differently and how things had run amuck," says Tucker.

"I think the best response to these situations is open transparency and candor, and agencies and clients working together and taking accountability. People are human and are willing to accept mistakes," he adds, echoing Brinker.

Though it's not one specific incident, people thinking that your food is made out of "pink slime" certainly qualifies as a crisis. Rather than run from the rumors, McDonald's confronted them head on, going as far as to create a YouTube channel dedicated to debunking these unappetizing urban legends.

Consumers appreciate the transparency. The 22 videos in the Our food. Your questions. YouTube series range in views from 57,000 to more than 8 million.

On the flip side, Volkswagen was cagey when the company's recent emissions scandal came to light. The Environmental Protection Agency accused the German automaker of violating the Clean Air Act as a result of programming engines, so that emissions standards were only met during laboratory testing, but not necessarily on the road.

Volkswagen's stock plummeted, the chief executive (CEO) resigned, and several other executives were suspended. The brand's public apologies may have had better reception, had the company not spent the previous year insisting the emissions discrepancies were technical glitches. According to "Dieselgate" data from SurveyMonkey, about 70 percent of consumers now have more negative perceptions of the brand.

4. Think about the big picture

During the last Super Bowl, Nationwide's commercial was both the most talked about and the most disliked. The commercial centered on a little boy listing off all the things he'd never do, like travel the world or get married. "I couldn’t grow up because I died from an accident," he said, as the screen flashed the statistic that preventable injuries are the number one cause of childhood deaths in America.

The ad was widely considered insensitive and depressing. The majority of the resulting 238,000 Tweets were either lambasting the insurance company or lampooning it.

"Nationwide launched the Make Safe Happen program during the Super Bowl to raise awareness that accidental injuries are the number one cause of death among children in the United States," says Joe Case, a spokesperson for the brand. "Although the ad was received by many different audiences in many different ways, our efforts have been focused on making an impact on this issue across the country."

ClickZ listed Nationwide's ad as one of the Super Bowl losers because of the backlash, but maybe we were the ones not thinking about the big picture. Did Nationwide set out to run the most popular ad or raise awareness? People may not have appreciated the brand's ugly message, but it certainly achieved the goal of getting people to talk about the issue.

5. Use data as insurance

SurveyMonkey's Brinker thinks that with data and social listening, brands can keep track of the conversation, allowing them to be aware of any potential crisis. It helps to understand your brand's vulnerabilities, he adds. For example, Facebook's vulnerabilities include things like data security and cyber bullying.

"Most brands are proactively tracking the issues through social listening channels, but what they're not doing is proactively tracking the consumer opinion within the marketplace," says Brinker. "Even if someone is flip-flopping from a fan to making a negative comment, what you need to do is pair this unbiased data, and think about all these disparate sources of data you can pair together."

Brinker acknowledges that not all slip-ups are preventable. But he does think synthesizing data will help brands react to them as best as possible - and prevent them from happening again.

In conclusion

You may not violate the Clean Air Act or accidentally retweet Nazi propaganda, but you'll probably commit a marketing gaffe at some point. It happens. And when it does, remember to respond quickly, but not so quickly that you haven't fully thought your response out. People like contrition. 

People also like transparency, so own up to your mistakes - if you've even made one. Look to Nationwide for that one. The Super Bowl-viewing public (everyone) hated its commercial, but the ad certainly achieved what it set out to do, which was to get people talking.

And if you can't combine all your data sources to prevent these mistakes from happening to begin with, at least combine your data sources to keep them from happening again.

Homepage image via Shutterstock

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