5 Lessons from Social Media PR Disasters

Pop quiz for all of you hotshot social media mavens: Your client's Facebook fan page is overrun by angry protesters. What do you do?

That's the situation Nestlé found itself in this week, when a Greenpeace campaign targeted the company for its use of palm oil suppliers who are allegedly destroying orangutan-inhabited rainforests. The fight made its way to Facebook, where Nestlé's fan page was assailed. Nestlé responded by warning users not to use altered versions of its logo and taking a snarky tone with its critics. Then it apologized.

If Nestlé's experience underscores how not to handle public relations online, here are five lessons gleaned from past social media public relations disasters:

1. Don't get defensive
Nestlé violated a basic rule of public relations, said BNET's Rick Broida: "Don't insult your customers." Even if you applaud the moderator for acting like a living, breathing human being, the combative tone resulted in continued rants on the Nestlé's Facebook page, even after the company announced it was ending its relationship with the palm oil supplier in question. Such an announcement should have been a lauded shift to a sustainable practice, but it was lost amid the vitriol.

2. Closely watch social networks for complaints
On February 13, director Kevin Smith was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight, essentially for being too fat to fit in his assigned seat. He tweeted the episode that night and the next day, and his ordeal became a talking point across the Internet, but Southwest moved quickly to smooth things over. By the time the story was trending on Google, Southwest had already apologized to Smith via Twitter and posted an apology and explanation of its policy on its own blog.

3. Don't stalk your customers
This one might seem obvious, but it was lost on the people at global advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi when they created a viral campaign for Toyota. In 2008, the firm launched an ad campaign for the Toyota Matrix called "Your Other You," which allowed people to set friends up for elaborate pranks in which an actor stalked them with e-mails, text messages and phone calls. Last fall, a woman sued the companies for $10 million claiming that she began crying all the time, lost sleep and began sleeping with a machete by her bed as a result of the campaign. "This sounds like one of those ideas that was great in the boardroom and then on execution was a really bad idea," Jeff Roach, president and creative director of Glitteration, a marketing agency based in Oakville, Ont. told CanadianBusiness.com.

4. Be vigilant of how employees use social media
Last April, a video surfaced on YouTube in which one of two Domino's employees did some generally nasty stuff like shoving pizza cheese up his nose, while the other narrated the video. Even though the food was allegedly never delivered, the company suffered a major public relations hit. According to one research firm, Domino's rating among consumers went from positive to negative almost overnight. A spokesman told The New York Times that "even people who've been with us as loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years, people are second-guessing their relationship with Domino's, and that's not fair." Welcome to the Internet, brother.

5. Don't insult a cohesive community
In 2008, Motrin launched a video ad campaign which suggested that mothers who carry babies in slings do it to be fashionable, but suffer more as a result (and Motrin is there for you!). The video quickly went viral, but led to a backlash on mommy blogs, Twitter and Facebook. According to Fast Company's Allyson Kapin, over 100 blog posts were up at the time with headlines such as "Motrin Makes Moms Mad" or "Motrin Giving Moms a Headache." The campaign's Web site was eventually shut down and an executive sent notes of apology to bloggers. The one bright spot, a company executive told The Wall Street Journal, is that the experience was a learning opportunity.

Here's the Greenpeace video targeting Nestlé. (Warning: this might be graphic to some and involves a fake Orangutan finger and fake Orangutan blood.)