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When brands strike back on social media

When brands strike back on social media Jenn Deering Davis

Running social media for a brand can be a daunting challenge. Even on a good day, you often have to respond to unhappy customers with very public complaints, all while keeping a smile on your social face. And on a bad day, you may even find yourself the target of an attack.

Sometimes these attacks are in response to something a brand did -- a new ad campaign, a change in stores, a statement by an executive -- and sometimes they come out of nowhere. This kind of attack requires a very specific form of crisis communication on social media, but when handled correctly, can actually boost a brand's reputation.

So, if you find yourself on the receiving end of an attack, how do you decide when to give in, when to stay out of it, and when to fight back? How you handle an attack will impact how your current and potential customers perceive your brand, so let's talk about how you can do that without tarnishing your brand's reputation. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all the time to brands on social media. On the bright side, this gives us lots of examples to learn from.


In October 2015, the Campbell Soup Company aired a new TV commercial showing a family with two gay dads. They promoted the hashtag #RealRealLife and encouraged conversation on social media. Viewers posted thousands of tweets, the majority of them positive. However, not everyone was pleased with the ad, and took to Twitter to complain. The conservative One Million Moms group called for Campbell's to stop airing the commercial, and encouraged its members to boycott Campbell's soup products until the company took action.

In this case, the company in question mostly stayed out of this controversy, not engaging on social media (though a fake Facebook account, Campbells ForHelp, had something to say). But many of their fans, and at least one comedian spoke up for them, and the issue mostly faded away after a few weeks.


A few years ago, Cheerios aired a commercial starring a biracial family that received a great deal of sadly typical racist internet commentary. Cheerios didn't pull the commercial from broadcast, but they did close the comments section on YouTube. In spite of all the negative commentary, Cheerios actually brought the family from the original ad back in a Super Bowl commercial the following year. The new ad was received with much less controversy, and got tremendous support from many of the same people who supported the original ad.

Cheerios responded to the original attacks by digging in and committing even further to their cause, which earned them a great deal of respect and increased loyalty from most of their customers.


During the most recent holiday season, Reese's ran into some social backlash about their special holiday chocolates. The company sold a number of not-very-tree-looking chocolate trees, which resulted in a lot of questions and negative feedback on social media.

The company took a direct approach in its response, which included replying with humor and the hashtag #AllTreesAreBeautiful. For many brands, humor is a great way to diffuse an issue online.

Honey Maid

But as far as the award for the most direct and honest responses to backlash, Honey Maid earns that mantle. In 2004, the Nabisco brand started a new #ThisIsWholesome campaign, including families of all makeups and races, which generated a number of negative reactions online. Instead of ignoring the comments or responding with humor, they created a video that addressed the issue head on. In the video, they printed out the negative responses and made beautiful art from it that spelled out the word "love." Most interestingly, Honey Maid reported that they received 10 times more positive responses than negative.

What can you do if this happens to your brand? Here are a few tips to keep your cool when you fight back online.

Stand up for your brand when it matters.
It's okay -- in fact, it can even strengthen your brand -- to take a stand on an issue. Don't feel like you have to back down or stay quiet in the face of criticism. If what you're fighting for matters to you and your brand, and it represents your brand voice the way you think it should, then don't back down. You'll likely attract more new customers then lose existing ones, so hold your ground.

Know when it matters.
To stand up for your brand, you really need to know when the cause you're supporting really matters. Is this a change or campaign your company fully stands behind? Make sure you communicate this internally and know when to dig in and when to back off. Learn what issues or initiatives are worth the effort.

Respond to your customers.
Social media is meant to be social, so you should reply to your most important audience -- your engaged customers. Be polite and positive. Listen. Provide more information when appropriate, clarify policies or positions, and communicate clearly and openly. Some customer will have legitimate questions and concerns, so be sure you address them.

Don't engage the trolls.
On the flip side, know when to stay out of a conversation. You don't have to personally respond to every critic, especially the ones who are clearly there to just start a fight. There are some arguments you can never win, so it's best to not even start those. If you do engage, stick to the facts and use humor carefully.

Remember that more people support you than don't.
If what you're doing really is good -- whether it's standing up for a cause, or making a change to your products -- you will have far more supporters than detractors. Pay attention to those who are happy with what you're doing. In every single one of the examples above, there were many more positive comments than negative ones. Remember who you're here to serve.

Monitor the conversation.
Be sure you have social media listening and analytics in place to first notice when an attack begins, and then to keep track of how large the conversation is and what people are actually saying. If you're prepared for this kind of crisis in advance, it'll be easier to handle when it happens. Getting the right social media management tools in place will save you a lot of time, money and stress later.

Don't forget that you're bigger.
If you do decide to fight back, remember that you're probably much bigger than your attackers in terms of resources and social reach. Don't be a bully. It may not seem like it at the time, but your brand likely holds more of the power in this situation, so remain calm and play nice. Never attack your attackers.

Learn from the lessons of Campbell's, Cheerios, Honey Maid, and Reese's. It's okay to stand up for yourself when your brand is attacked, if you handle it appropriately.

Jenn Deering Davis is cofounder and editor-in-chief at Union Metrics

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"Businessmen fighting in the office" image via iStock.

Jenn Deering Davis is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Union Metrics, the company behind TweetReach and several other social media analytics products. Union Metrics makes social media analytics applications, including TweetReach, Union Metrics for...

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