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New lessons from 6 tweets gone wrong

Jennifer Marlo
New lessons from 6 tweets gone wrong Jennifer Marlo

Twitter boasts 145 million registered users. That kind of adoption leaves little room for error if you're a brand that uses Twitter as a promotional tool. Yet, some brands continue to trip over offensive tweets that incite massive consumer backlash, resulting in awkward apologies as brands attempt to sew up torn reputations. The fact that such incidents still occur is a strange phenomenon indeed, considering that Twitter is now so widely accepted as a marketing tool.

However, not all mistakes prove detrimental. Some brands have learned how to use any publicity -- good or bad -- to their advantage with quick thinking and solid game strategies. Other brands have discovered how to gracefully buffer Twitter blunders with humility and humor, thereby turning mistakes into opportunities to make meaningful connections with consumers.  

In an era in which organizations can grow to monolithic proportions, it is easy to forget that brands and advertising agencies are composed of living people, none of whom are immune to making mistakes. James Joyce once said, "A man's errors are his portals of discovery." It is how one learns from and overcomes mistakes that shows a person's (or company's) true mettle. Consumers know this and are quick to forgive companies that offer sincere mea culpas.

In this article, we'll take a look at recent brand-related Twitter scandals; some blunders we've all heard about, while others might not have crossed your radar. Regardless, all provide great lessons in how to navigate the sometimes-mysterious fabric of the Twitterverse.

This first example is a case of the "oops-I-thought-that-was-my-Twitter-account" mix-up. Believing she had logged into her personal account, a Red Cross employee posted her excitement over finding additional bottles of Dogfish beer. She added the hashtag #gettingslizzered to her tweet in reference to the pop song "Like a G6," by Far East Movement:

The aftermath: Instead of issuing a stuffy apology, the Red Cross made light of the situation:

Good-humored Twitter followers began tagging tweets with #gettingslizzered (i.e., getting drunk) in honor of the "rogue" tweet. Dogfish beer caught wind of the running joke and, in an interesting turn of events, jumped into the thread:

The beer brand quickly followed up with this bit of genius:

Thanks to Dogfish beer, the debacle resulted in an influx of Red Cross donations. In response, the Red Cross issued a warm and genuine thank-you to its Twitter followers:

"...we found so many of you to be sympathetic and understanding. While we're a 130 year old humanitarian organization, we're also made of up human beings. Thanks for not only getting that but for turning our faux pas into something good. You immediately embraced this mix-up and many of you have pledged donations to the Red Cross."

Lesson learned: Humility goes a long way. In less than 100 characters, The Red Cross acknowledged the mistake and deflected negative attention with a light-hearted joke. In perfect response to the situation, Dogfish turned the fiasco into a blood drive (followed by a beer fest, of course), for which the Red Cross posted a gracious thank you.

Working together as alchemists, both brands managed to turn a gaffe into gold.

Last September, The Onyx Café in Daly City, Calif., offered consumers a place to "come cool off with a drink" during a devastating forest fire that injured and killed numerous local inhabitants. An angry follower retweeted Onyx Café's original tweet with a response that was heatedly echoed by the community:

The aftermath: The Onyx Café immediately shifted into high-gear damage-control with the following attempt at making amends:

In the original Facebook post, the café avowed that it was "extremely sorry for the remark" as it "did not fully understand the situation until after the comment was made." In a supplemental post, Onyx Café continued with, "We fully support the community in their efforts to support one another in this time of crisis and I hope the people can forgive us for this tactless act."

Today, the Onyx Café appears to have been forgiven for its "tactless act." Posts on the café's Facebook page indicate a thriving business that regularly receives positive consumer feedback on everything from menu items to activities such as open-mic, movie, and game nights. Eight months after the debacle, it is business as usual.

Lesson learned: Consumers expect brands to act both responsibly and conscientiously. As a rule of thumb, avoid making light of political upheavals, natural disasters, or any other event that could result in the pain and suffering of others.

If mistakes are made, it is best to come clean with a sincere apology.

Gilbert Gottfried, former voice of the Aflac duck, was fired by the company in March after he posted insensitive jokes about Japan via his personal Twitter account, including:

"What do Howard Stern and Japan have in common? They're both radioactive."
"Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them."

Needless to say, quite a few individuals found Gottfried's jokes less than amusing.

The aftermath: Aflac senior vice president and CMO Michael Zuna quickly moved to assert that "Gilbert's recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac." Zuna went on to explain that "Aflac Japan -- and, by extension, Japan itself -- is part of the Aflac family, and there is no place for anything but compassion and concern during these difficult times."

Gottfried apologized the next afternoon, claimed that he "meant no disrespect," and assured the Twitterverse that his "thoughts are with the victims and their families."

Critics, like this blogger for Forbes magazine, criticized Gottfried for taking too long to post an apology. The blogger noted that the delayed apology meant Aflac remained a trending topic on Twitter for quite some time following the initial scandal.

Writer Brendan Behan once famously said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary;" it is an opinion that he undoubtedly acquired from fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde. Both men knew that publicity -- good or bad -- can be good for business if handled correctly.

Is this a philosophy that Aflac took to heart? It would appear so: In the midst of increased trending and media attention, Aflac embarked on a highly publicized talent search to replace Gottfried as the voice of its duck. The search resulted in numerous articles that continued to pop up well beyond the scandal's expected shelf life.

While it's too early to tell if this is a true illustration that any publicity can be turned into good publicity, one thing is certain: Aflac walked away from the calamity looking responsible for having immediately fired Gottfried -- and it ended up with an unexpected word-of-mouth boost.

Lesson learned: Brands cannot always be in total control of their image. Take a cue from Aflac and act quickly. Swift reaction is the keystone of post-scandal damage control.

In another disaster-related post, Microsoft issued this Twitter update the day after Japan's earthquake:

"@bing: How you can #SupportJapan -- http://binged.it/fEh7iT. For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K."

The aftermath: While seemingly well intentioned, Twitter users were incensed by what they considered a brazen marketing plug for Microsoft's search engine, Bing.com. A new hashtag, #f**kyoubing, cropped up in light of what users dubbed an "epic fail." Microsoft had no choice but to apologize. The company then pledged to donate $100,000 toward Japan's disaster relief without the previously required retweets.

Lesson learned: Consumers are suspicious of big brands these days and are quick to trash any company that smells inauthentic. Even the most well-intentioned efforts can be misconstrued as deceptive -- brands had best tread carefully on issues that stir emotional responses from the public.

Kenneth Cole
Last February, @KennethCole used Egypt's political turmoil to advertise the company's spring collection through Twitter. The post did draw attention -- unfortunately, it wasn't the right kind of attention.


The aftermath: Consumers chastised the Kenneth Cole Company for making light of the uprising in Egypt. In an effort to diffuse the situation, Kenneth Cole issued a remorseful Facebook post:

"I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I've dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate."

It was too late. Retaliatory tweets hit a fever pitch when a fake Twitter account, @KennethColePR, ridiculed the company with rapier-sharp remarks: "Our new slingback pumps would make Anne Frank come out of hiding!"


Lesson learned: Perhaps it's best for brands to refrain from making jokes that stem from current political and emotional hotbeds. Sometimes relevant can be too relevant.

In March, a disgruntled Chrysler employee posted his driving frustrations with a fairly typical rush-hour related tweet: "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f**king drive." Unfortunately, he posted his rant via the @ChryslerAutos Twitter account for all of Chrysler's Twitter followers to see.

The aftermath: Like the Red Cross incident, the aforementioned Chrysler employee had confused the company Twitter account with his own personal account. In a mistake that undoubtedly took less than a minute to make, reputations were blemished and the offending individual sealed his fate as a former Chrysler contractor.

Chrysler scrambled to control the damage with a cryptic tweet:

This unfortunate slip-up comes at a time when Chrysler has endeavored to promote its Detroit plant employees as good hard-working American citizens in an effort to boost its wholesome all-American reputation.

The real tragedy is that Chrysler, in its desperation to save face, fired the contractor (who was, by the way, an MBA student) and his employer, New Media Strategies. Due to the loss of business, New Media Strategies was forced to lay off 20 of its employees. Despite public criticism of the firing, Chrysler held steadfast in its decision:

"The company has invested greatly, not only financially, but philosophically... in supporting Detroit and the U.S. auto industry, and we simply couldn't tolerate any messaging -- whether or not there was an obscenity -- that was denigrating to Detroit," said company spokesman Ed Garsten.

Lesson learned: Everyone knows that to err is human -- which is why companies need to take extra precautions to circumvent mistakes. To avoid these kinds of errors, company Twitter posts should go through the same checks and balances that any other piece of branded editorial content goes through.

If a mistake is made, brands should try and use the opportunity to connect with consumers by appealing to their sense of empathy. While it was appropriate for Chrysler to apologize on Twitter, the message itself lacked personality and did nothing to enhance the Chrysler image -- an image-in-limbo that tanked once the public discovered that Chrysler's knee-jerk response resulted in lost jobs. In firing the ad agency, Chrysler gave the impression that it was pointing fingers in order to avoid responsibility, thereby exaggerating the magnitude of the initial Twitter mistake.

As evidenced by the Red Cross debacle, skillfully handled Twitter follies can actually prove beneficial to brands. A brand that comes across as both apologetic and light-hearted endears itself to consumers. Perhaps a jest about needing to send the offending employee to road-rage management classes, or a donation to a "don't text while driving" campaign, would have been a good alternative to Chrysler's aggressive act of contrition.

Hopefully the preceding examples gave you plenty to think about in terms of what not to do when it comes to employing Twitter in marketing efforts. For additional tips, check out NewCommBiz.com's Do Not Tweet List.

Jennifer Marlo is an associate editor at iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Jennifer Marlo

Jennifer received her BFA from UC Santa Barbara and MFA from CALARTS in 2006. Post graduation, Jennifer segued into freelance writing, focusing on various topics such as arts, entertainment, travel, and tourism. Jennifer is a native Los Angelean...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Christopher Derrick

2011, May 12

Thing about most of these mistake examples, is that access to a company's Twitter account was too ubiquitous. More control of access would stem the Red Cross and Chrysler mistakes.

The others point to steering clear from hotbed issues where death and destruction are the major currency of the event...

Commenter: Jennifer Marlo

2011, May 11

Thank you for your post, Mike. I think its great that Chrysler prohibits employees from texting while driving. I also appreciate the clarification regarding the agency employee.



Commenter: Nick Stamoulis

2011, May 11

What Red Cross did is a fantastic example of online reputation management. They admitted to the mistake, yet managed to turn it into a plus. A little humility and a little humor goes a long way in the Twitterverse.

Commenter: Tim Bottiglieri

2011, May 11

the people keep the deceitful ones honest, yep, mistakes are made by us humans, some silly, and some intentionally to insult, thank good-y for all of us who r good-y.

Commenter: Mike Driehorst

2011, May 11

Definitely plenty of good lessons and food for thought, Jennifer. I was not familiar with all of the examples you cited -- so thanks.

Just a quick note on the Chrysler / @ChryslerAutos example, Chrysler Group (who I work for), didn't fire the agency employee, the agency did. As Ed Garsten noted in this blog post, "It was their decision. We didn't demand it."

Also, Chrysler Group does have a policy that prohibits employees and contractors from texting while driving (see info at http://blog.chryslerllc.com/blog.do?id=861&p=entry).

Take care,
-Mike Driehorst
Editorial Director-Online Media
Chrysler Group