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One of our main focuses on the Econsultancy blog is highlighting instances of best practice and digital excellence in the marketing world.

But every so often it’s also useful to shine a light on the mistakes that people make, particularly when it comes to social media.

I could try to lie and say that I’m doing this so we can all learn valuable lessons from the unfortunate errors of others, but truthfully I just find it quite amusing.

So without further ado, here are the 16 worst social media fails from 2013. And if this isn't enough, feel free to check out the 10 worst social fails from last year as well.

Benadryl forgets that people love childish jokes

As part of its content marketing efforts during hay fever season Benadryl created an interactive pollen count map that allowed sufferers to pinpoint pollen hotspots.

On the face of it this is a great idea, as it is a useful tool that caters perfectly to Benadryl’s target audience.

Alas, it didn’t take long for people to realise that the pins could be used to spell out swear words, or indeed draw rude pictures....

 

The Onion drops the 'c' bomb

The Onion’s satirical take on the day’s news often blurs the line between being edgy and just plain offensive, yet its owners tend to remain resolutely unapologetic.

However a tweet about nine-year-old actress Quvenzhane Wallis during the Oscars was deemed to be a step too far, and it’s not difficult to see why.

For those that can’t guess, the blur is hiding a four-letter word beginning with ‘c’.

The tweet caused a backlash on social media, forcing CEO Steve Hannah to issue a personal apology stating that the company was introducing new Twitter guidelines and would be “taking immediate steps to discipline this individuals responsible.”

The breathtaking arrogance of JP Morgan

In a brilliant example of a brand being entirely ignorant of its own public image, JP Morgan put its vice chairman Jimmy Lee up for a Q&A in November.

After the hashtag #AskJPM was pelted with abuse prior to the Q&A going live, JP Morgan came to its senses and cancelled the event.

Just goes to show that Twitter Q&As aren’t for everyone, particularly not money-grabbing bankers...

British Airways' customer service fail

Having a customer moan about your service via social media isn’t exactly a fail in itself, but it is if that customer buys social advertising to promote their complaint and the brand then fails to respond for another eight hours.

This is exactly the situation that British Airways found itself in when a Twitter user decided that the world needed to know about his lost luggage.

Annoyed by BA’s failure to find his father’s lost suitcase, Hassan Syed paid for this Promoted Tweet, which was seen by more than 76,000 users:

Despite such being the subject of such a public complaint, BA failed to respond to Syed for eight hours as the message had been posted outside of its customer service hours.

BA’s failure to get to grips with the 24/7 nature of social media and implement some sort of crisis management meant that the problem festered in a very public domain for far too long.

Amy’s Baking has a public meltdown

Restaurants that appear on Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares are obviously in need of a helping hand, however the owners of Amy’s Bakery in Scottsdale, Arizona set a new low.

They stole tips, admitted to firing more than 100 staff and picked fights with customers.

This inevitably caused a few murmurings online as people discussed what they’d seen on TV, but the reaction from owners Amy and Samy Bouzaglo was alarming even by the low, low standards set by social media.

Here are just a few of the highlights of the ensuing rant:

Home Depot’s casual racism

In November Home Depot was forced into a grovelling apology after it tweeted a picture of two African-American employees with a person in a gorilla mask in between them.

This is not racist in itself, however it was also accompanied by the words: “Which drummer is not like the others?”

Twitter users were obviously offended by the tweet, which was quickly pulled and blamed on a “stupid” employee who was subsequently fired.

Tesco caught horsing around

The horsemeat scandal was one of the biggest stories to hit the UK this year, and grocery giant Tesco was one of the most prominent villains/victims.

Food investigators found that horsemeat accounted for almost a third of its Everyday Value burgers, though to its credit Tesco did immediately take action to remove the products from its shelves.

Unfortunately its customer care team wasn’t quite as sharp, and had to issue a quick apology after failing to stop this pre-scheduled tweet from going out...

Luton Airport makes light of child’s death

In March Luton Airport posted a light-hearted Facebook update to assure passengers that they would remain safe even when it snows.

The post read: “Because we are such a super airport….this is what we prevent you from when it snows……Weeeee :)”

Unfortunately the social team made the bizarre decision to include an image of a real-life plane crash that caused the death of a six-year old car passenger.

People were understandably offended and the picture was removed shortly afterwards. 

British Gas gets its timing all wrong

Another Twitter Q&A, another epic fail, this time organised by British Gas.

Back in October the utility company arranged a Q&A to coincide with an announcement that it was increasing prices by 11%. The PR team apparently thought that Twitter was the perfect forum in which to answer customer queries about the greedy and indefensible price hike.

Our own head of social Matt Owen has already examined the ensuing debacle in more detail, discovering that of the 16,000+ angry responses that British Gas received 145 contained the word ‘death’ and 88 accused the company of being ‘greedy’.

Epicurious uses Boston bombings to sell scones

The wonderful thing about brands is that they can’t help but see the marketing opportunities that lie within tragic events.

Last year retailers were falling over themselves to try and make a few extra sales off the back of Hurricane Sandy in New York, and in March food website Epicurious used the Boston marathon bombings as an excuse to promote its range of breakfast options.

In fairness the tweets were posted in the best possible taste and “in honor of Boston and New England”...

Nokia finally loses it

Poor old Nokia has had a rough few years after seeing its once dominant position in the mobile phone market usurped by the likes of Apple and Samsung.

In November the pressure finally became too much for the folks in its New Zealand office, leading to this beauty:

Ryanair's CEO shows his true colours

In October Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary took to Twitter to answer questions from the public about his budget airline.

The idea was to try and soften his image and that of the company, however it didn’t work as O’Leary made a series of sexist and confrontational remarks which was in keeping with his existing image as a brash, arrogant CEO.

It was also a reminder that brands need to get the basics right when hosting a Twitter Q&A, as O’Leary forgot to put dots in front of his responses so that they were visible to all of the airlines followers and more importantly he failed to use the branded hashtag.  

American Airlines stays upbeat in the face of adversity

It’s not uncommon to send out automatic stock responses to @mentions on Twitter as a way of streamlining the customer service process. However it only works if the responses make sense.

In February American Airlines was caught out when it sent upbeat responses to a series of complaints from Twitter users.

Burger King and Jeep promote their rivals

Burger King and Jeep both lost control of their Twitter feeds after they were hacked by an unknown group.

The hackers changed Burger King's logo and profile name to McDonald’s, before tweeting that the company had been bought out by its competitor.

It then took a turn for the worse, with tweets about Burger King employees taking drugs and other offensive material.

The company regained control of the feed shortly afterwards, and hopefully reset the password. Unfortunately the hackers weren’t finished, and swiftly replaced Jeep’s logo on its Twitter feed with a Cadillac symbol. 

Hey Starbucks, why don't you pay some tax?

Admittedly this example isn’t technically from this year, but it occurred during Christmas 2012 which I deem to be close enough.

As a PR stunt Starbucks displayed Twitter messages that used the hashtag #spreadthecheer on a big screen next to an ice rink at the Natural History Museum in London, but forgot to actually monitor what was being posted.

Coming hot on the heels of the scandal over Starbucks’ UK taxes, the wall unsurprisingly became a prime target for angry taxpayers...

HMV forgets who has access to its Twitter feed

HMV’s mistake wasn’t that it accidentally tweeted something offensive, but that it forgot who held the keys to its Twitter feed.

The troubled retailer was forced to layoff thousands of staff after going into administration earlier this year, which obviously annoyed a lot of its employees.

One of them then decided to take out their anger by live tweeting a meeting with HR where 60 staff members were informed that they were being sacked.

Using the hashtag #hmvXFactorFiring the employee first announced that a “mass execution” was taking place, before revealing that the marketing director had a limited knowledge of social media and that the Twitter account was initially established by an unpaid intern.

Thanks to Gizmodo for the screenshot...

David Moth

Published 29 November, 2013 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (25)

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Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

Enjoyable list! But I can't help to wonder why the C-word was fuzzied out, and the F-word wasn't? :)

over 2 years ago

David Moth

David Moth, Editor & Head of Social at EconsultancyStaff

@Parry, the screenshots were pinched from elsewhere, so the censorship was done by someone else :)

I'd probably have done it the same way though. The 'c' word is too much for our readers but I feel the Nokia tweet needs to be seen in all its simple glory for maximum impact.

In fact the Nokia one is probably my favourite example on this list as I can imagine a disgruntled employee deciding to send an offensive tweet in a fit of anger and that was the best they could come up with.

over 2 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

I suppose that if "F-you" is the best they can come up with, well, perhaps Nokia is better off without them!

over 2 years ago

Laura Phillips

Laura Phillips, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

Awesome post with some proper clangers I knew about, and some I didn't! It still amazes me how wring big brands can get it...

over 2 years ago

Dean Marsden

Dean Marsden, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai Ltd

Wow, there have been some serious bloopers this year! It really doesn't help that most of these are caused by major corporations not appreciating the 24/7 natural of social media or that they hire the wrong people for the job. In experienced interns or just people with a short temper. I can only see these examples becoming more commonplace until the value of social media is appreciated by companies.

over 2 years ago

Lenka Istvanova

Lenka Istvanova, Marketing Project Manager at Freestak

Awesome post, David. I didn't know about half of those social media fails. These examples really show that even big companies can screw up if they don't think before hitting the 'tweet' button. And I agree with Hassan large companies,especially those which operate internationally (and 24/7) really need to have someone who looks after Social Media accounts 24/7.

over 2 years ago

Seema Kumari

Seema Kumari, Head of Digital Marketing at Hearst Magazines

Brilliant! Love this post. You'd think by now companies would have a strict social media guideline policy in place!

over 2 years ago

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Steve

Really enjoyed reading these top 16 social media fails by the large companies , especially from large businesses like BrithisAirways!

Really they need to learn how does social media works!

over 2 years ago

Lucy Lonsdale

Lucy Lonsdale, Digital Account Director at HH Global

Hi Seema

I wondering if you could help as you're from Hearst, this is rather a case of 'customer service fails' from your company having emailed them 9 times since 21/08/2013 resulting in the last email I sent 17/09/2013 of which I have never had a response.

I've sent you an email, it really would be great if you could get someone to actually call me as promised. Not sure why Hearst doesn't have much interest in their customer post sales, but as part of your role I'm sure you should be looking into it!

Thanks,

Lucy

over 2 years ago

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Jan Willis

Staggering how many senior executives still don't get social media. As for MOL I have to question how any savvy social media team could ever think it was a good idea to let him loose on Twitter! It's like watching a car crash in slow motion...

over 2 years ago

Seema Kumari

Seema Kumari, Head of Digital Marketing at Hearst Magazines

Hi Lucy
Many thanks for bringing this to my attention. I shall be having serious words with our customer service agency and will ensure you are contacted my midday today. This is absolutely ridiculous.
Seema

over 2 years ago

Lucy Lonsdale

Lucy Lonsdale, Digital Account Director at HH Global

Thanks for being so understanding, yes it is! All the best, L

over 2 years ago

Maebellyne Ventura

Maebellyne Ventura, Digital Marketing at Wealthport AG

It still amazes me how every year, big brands still fail on social media in spectacular fashion! For every digital step forward, one tweet takes them back 5.

over 2 years ago

Pauline Randall

Pauline Randall, Director at Florizel Media

Great list of social media fails - particularly love the danger of the #hashtag. Perhaps the best thing is to think of the worst possible thing that can happen and then consider whether a hashtag is a good idea.

over 2 years ago

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Jeremy Taylor

Great collection, but let's not be too harsh on all of them. Social is new territory for all these brands and there are going to be a few mistakes on the way as they try out new ideas.

Benadryl's map was a nice idea and worth a shot. Likewise, at least British Gas tried to engage with their upset customers. Even if it did massively backfire, the sentiment was right and they should be applauded for that.

However... if you use a plane crash, terrorist attack or natural disaster to try and sell your stuff then you're just an idiot.

If you give Twitter access to someone that can't be 100% trusted and you don't have any moderation system in place then you're an idiot.

If you're a Senior Marketing Manager and you want to know "how to shut down Twitter" then you're an idiot.

If you're Michael O’Leary then you're an idiot.

over 2 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

Awesome round up! Thanks for putting all these together David, really enjoyed it - and I'm incredulous as to how some of this stuff got through!

I have to say though, I followed the #GrillMOL Twitter chat @Ryanair hosted as it happened, and thoroughly enjoyed the way it unfolded.

Even though MOL was definitely inappropriate on a couple of occasions, I got the sense that this was a genuine chat - that it wasn't a shiny, over-engineered PR stunt, and that he certainly wasn't towing the party line just to make himself look digital-savvy.

Was it really a fail? It got us all talking about it (and bad PR seems to be O'Leary's tactic - remember the story about the airline's plans to charge for mid-flight toilet visits? Great prank).

O'Leary - whose audacity I actually rather admire - has since commented that he's aware that his and Ryanair's image (which has also rubbed off on the company) needs to be updated and improved, so that's positive.

He's a big personality, the likes of which not many brands at all can lay claim to - and a great one to push out into the public domain to reach out to customers with. I'd love to get a cheeky tweet back from him.

I'm sure lots of people will disagree with me, but bravo Ryanair and MOL for launching a Twitter channel - they've obviously finally realised that it's what their customers want, and that it's what will bring them up to speed.

I've flown to Ireland a few times a year with Ryanair for about 10 years now, and the more I hear and read about Michael O'Leary, the more forgiving I become about the annoying jingles, and the pre-take-off sales of scratch cards and vodka sachets. Hats off to a clever guy, I say.

over 2 years ago

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Lucas Swennen

This nice list makes clear that even big organizations can have a bad moment / day / week on social media.
Does anyone has information if these or other examples really hurt organizations (financially, loss of customers etc)?

over 2 years ago

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jorge

And Pesi vs Cristiano Ronaldo?
Bah

over 2 years ago

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Maurice Ryan

This is brilliant. It's almost as if companies don't think about the impact social networking can have before letting loose either a CEO who doesn't know how to use it or an intern who is about to loose their job. I'm looking forward to see how epic, the fails of 2014 will be.

over 2 years ago

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Eleanor Ceney

Thanks - a great selection of 'what not to do' examples!

over 2 years ago

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Lillie Underwood

Amazing round up article. If nothing else, these companies can get their brands mentioned and talked about because of their blunders.

Great article. I love annual round ups.

over 2 years ago

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neha.sharma258@gmail.com

amazing post..now big companies will take caare of that..thankss...!!

over 2 years ago

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Guy Harvey, Online Media and Design Manager at Global ID Group

Great annual list as always. Surely Justine Sacco is no 1 #hasjustinelandedyet took over the imagination of the whole twitterverse for hours. Credit to her company, IAC, they handled it well, making statements, apologizing, and firing Ms Sacco.

What they didn't handle well was not applying social media guidelines to their employees, though of course one would think the PR people would be the ones that would need it less.

She did handle the crisis reasonably well, issued a statement and laid low with no interviews. I am guessing her billionaire father got real PR advice on this!

Anyway Justine Sacco is a legend. Her tweet has been described worst of the year.

over 2 years ago

David Moth

David Moth, Editor & Head of Social at EconsultancyStaff

@Guy, thanks for pointing out the Sacco tweet, hadn't seen that one before!

over 2 years ago

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james more, Sales Manager at http://www.indiobailbonds.com/

Great information you compiled.

7 months ago

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