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when social media backfires

Social media can be a powerful marketing tool. Ever since Facebook launched Pages back in the fall of 2007, it seems that every business, big or small, has a presence online.

According to the 2016 Social Media Marketing Industry Report by Social Media Examiner, 90% of marketers see the use of social media as important to their business. A quick scan of Indeed lists over 1,500 open positions for jobs dealing with social media in the Seattle area alone. I think it’s easy to say that it’s not going away anytime soon.

As opposed to more traditional forms of marketing such as print or television, social media can allow a company to connect directly with their customers. Social media provides a forum for businesses to reach their core customers, gain insights from the people who use their products, and engender good will through posts that can demonstrate the humanity behind the company. But when controversy strikes, years of hard-earned credibility can blow up instantly.

One of the best examples of social media gone awry is the case of United Airlines. Most of you will instantly draw visions of a bloody Dr. Dao being dragged off a plane as passengers yelled in disbelief of what they had just seen. Though the backlash was immediate, United decided to double down by saying their policies were followed and that Dr. Dao was in the wrong. This initial inability to accept responsibility for the actions on their plane is what truly lit the Internet on fire.

While this situation is the nightmare that keeps social media managers up at night, there are three things that could have been done to lessen the negative impact on their brand image.

  1. Address the problem immediately, and ensure you are acting in the customer’s best interest. When a situation like this breaks, it can be difficult for the marketing department to fully grasp the situation. It can take a day or two for all the facts to present themselves, but while that’s happening you need to stop the bleeding. United could have just said “We’re aware of the situation involving one of our customers. We are currently investigating the incident and working to take care of our passengers.” Instead Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United, in his initial statement said, in a letter to employees, “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with a situation like this.” This is about as tone deaf of a statement he could have made. Munoz doubled down the following day by releasing a statement on Facebook saying, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”
  1. Don’t go dark. After the situation went “nuclear” following Mr. Munoz’s statements, United’s Facebook page went dark. All posting stopped for the next 16 days. In the vacuum created, Facebook users were more than happy to fill the void. United’s posts on April 10th and 11th received over 150,000 comments, the majority negative. A quick browsing shows people going off about totally unrelated things from flight delays to not receiving any peanuts. By losing the narrative, United’s Facebook page devolved into a slam fest of the airline.
  1. Work to rebuild trust. This not only takes time, but it also requires that you constantly reassure your customers that you are continuing to work toward making the situation better. United attempted this when they started posting again, but it was too little too late with the situation that transpired. While no business wants something negative to linger, a social media manager must have their ear to the ground. A quick scan of comments on United’s Facebook page nearly two months later shows that the backlash is far from over.

While all PR nightmares are different, following these three tips can help contain the situation, stop the bleeding, and give the business a chance to begin rebuilding their brand image.

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