David Amerland

Social Media Disasters of 2011

Top ten social media disasters of 2011

The year that’s about to close is probably going to be most noted for the number and depth of social media disasters we saw it give us. From Gilbert Gottfried losing his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck after posting jokes about the tsunami, in Japan, on his Twitter account to "Two and a Half Men" star Ashton Kutcher being rebuked after tweeting to the 8.5 million followers of his @aplusk account, "How do you fire Jo Pa?” there was a plethora of celebrities, personalities and brands getting it wrong, and doing so spectacularly and in public.

 The video tells a story of almost unbelievable social media ineptitude. It'll take just 10 minutes of your time and you will be astounded at some of the mistakes made:

There were so many picks to choose form that to get to a shortlist of ten for this year’s Top Ten Social Media Disasters, I had to sort through no fewer than 35 different case files and choose the ones which were the groundbreakers. Groundbreakers, by definition reach a milestone of sorts and provide us with a lesson that’s hard to forget.

Each of the ten cases you get to hear about in the short video I compiled shows, to some extent similar symptoms of a lack of understanding of how social media truly works. When you get so many brands and so many different companies getting it wrong in so many different fields it is a clear indication that this is not just a case of knowing the rules, it is more a case of there being no rules, or at least no rules that are clearly understood. Yet.

Social media however does have rules on how it should be used, most of which come from a process which takes the common sense of a communication channel’s intention and its limits when it comes to marketing. The ten social media disasters which follow below have each provided a specific defining moment and, by stint of their impact on the public psyche, have helped either drive a social media lesson home or forge new ways to use social media by learning what does not work and should never happen there.

Top Ten Social Media Disasters in 2011 Which Taught Us Something

#10. New Media Strategies. The social media marketing firm found itself in hot water when, after having been chosen by Chrysler to head their “Imported from Detroit”  campaign alongside a Super Bowl ad, one of their employees dropped the F-bomb in a March tweet from @ChryslerAutos ("I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive"). Although the Tweet was quickly deleted the damage had been done. New Media Strategies fired the employee and Chrysler fired them.

Lesson: Social Media matters. It really, really does.

#9. @Qwikster.  Every conceivable thing you can imagine seemed to go wrong for Netflix when it announced in September its plan to spin off its DVD-rental service into a separate site called Qwikster. The company failed to communicate with its customers, many of whom found themselves facing unexpected bills. It failed to check if the Twitter handle was available. In this case @Qwikster, belonged to a spicy-mouthed pothead by the name of Jason Castillo who enjoyed his newfound celebrity in a series of tweets at the expense of Netflix. Netflix killed Qwikster just three weeks later, but 800,000 subscribers wound up quitting the service in the third quarter.

Lesson: Social Media is an integral part of marketing, not an afterthought.

#8. Quantas. At Number 8 is Quantas. Australia’s favourite airline which launched a Twitter contest in November in which it asked followers to describe their "dream luxury in-flight experience" and pledged to award top tweeters with pyjamas and toiletries. Just the day before contract talks had broken down between Quantas and its unions, as a result the entire fleet was grounded. The campaign’s Twitter hashtag QuantasLuxury was hijacked, generating thousands of Tweets from unhappy customers.

Lesson: A lesson that timing is everything even on a Twitter campaign and that online and offline are no longer separate worlds.

#7. Bob Parsons. At Number seven is Bob Parsons, the colourful and larger than life Texan who founded and heads the massive US web domain registry company, GoDaddy. GoDaddy was subject to a massive backlash after its CEO,  tweeted a link to a video of himself shooting an elephant in Zimbabwe. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals led an effort urging a boycott of GoDaddy, and competitors tried to capitalize by offering discounted transfer rates and even making donations to elephant charities. Parsons tried to explain the shooting and video as philanthropic work, rather than recreation, saying it was to protect a Zimbabwe village from the marauding elephant, this only seemed to exacerbate the damage providing a lesson for other CEOs whose private life and online conduct reflected on their companies.

Lesson: It taught us that a CEOs personal life is never private, and that when it comes to posting something online you had better consider all the angles.

#6. Unilever. At number six is Unilever whose tomato sauce Ragu, earned the wrath of fathers everywhere after the company created and Tweeted about a series of videos of mothers sounding off on the hopelessness of their husbands in the kitchen. In the time-honoured tradition of the PR team hoping for a hit, Tweets were sent to prominent bloggers in the hope this could go viral. It did, though not in the way the company had expected. Tired of the stereotypical approach of Ragu, bloggers blogged and tweeted about how Ragu hates dads, making this a tending topic in Twitter and forcing the company to stop the campaign.

Lesson: It showed us that traditional marketing techniques do not work well online and that the social media conversation really is a two-way thing, rather than just another broadcast channel for companies and brands.  

#5. Kenneth Cole. At number five is Kenneth Cole shoes. The retailer stirred up trouble when he tried to ride the coattails of the Arab Spring social-media phenomenon with the tweet:


Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.

The backlash was as large as it was immediate forcing a prompt apology from the company.

Lesson: We know that social media is commercial only by association. If you use it you have to display empathy and sensitivity to what is going on in the world around you.

#4. Anthony Weiner. At number four is Anthony Weiner whose now unfortunate surname prompted the headlines Weinergate and launched considerably more than a thousand Tweets. When a photo of a part of his anatomy which sounds very similar to his surname was tweeted from his account to a Seattle woman in May, Anthony Weiner first denied it and he then insisted that he had been hacked.

The scrutiny however continued, and the powerful New York congressman - who had been considered the front-runner in the 2013 New York City mayoral election - was forced to admit that he had sent the photo himself. He resigned from the House of Representatives after 12 years in office.

Lesson: Social media drove the issue home about there being almost nothing private online. It became a defining moment in US politics with a powerful Congressman admitting all too human transgressions and stepping down from office. It helps to remember here that Weiner, for all his attempts to cover it up, had not indulged in any physical contact of any kind. Nevertheless the power and reach of social media had become sufficient to paint a less than savoury picture of him which had not been improved by his attempts to cover it all up.

#3. Virgin America. At number three is Virgin America. Being the American wing of a UK company which to some extent invented social media marketing the social media storm that blew around Virgin America is totally unexpected. When the company changed its booking system there were considerable problems with flight cancellations, bookings and even flight crews turning up late for work. As the predictable Twitter storm blew up

A VP of corporate communications at Virgin America claimed that customers and staff were happy with the change and they were experiencing minimal problems with the "smooth transition,". Furthermore a company spokesman denied that there were any problems with the booking system.
The result was that Virgin America’s brand was badly damaged resulting in customer losses at a time when flight companies struggled to break even.

Lesson: This particular social media disaster is at number three not just for its scale and reach but also for the fact that it happened to a company that is seemingly well versed in social media marketing, a reminder, if any were needed that it takes constant dedication to excel in the new social media marketing world and that a momentary lapse is all it takes to undo what has been built.

#2 Paypal. After some deliberation the number two slot goes to PayPal. PayPal is the global system for making payment transfers and enabling eCommerce transactions and it became the top contender for taking the Grinch Who Stole Christmas award when in a public exchange of incredible insensitivity with Regretsy, a humour blog that was trying to donate toys to needy children at Christmas, it announced that the PayPal definition of a good cause was making a donation to kittens but not to poor people. It then asked the blogger to close down the charity drive and, for good measure, froze her accounts but kept the commission charged. You can imagine the social media that blew up. PayPal’s Facebook page started getting complaints at the rate of a thousand a minute. When PayPal committed the cardinal sin of deleting some the social media storm spilled over on Twitter and even Google+. The result was that PayPal backtracked, allowed the blogger to run her charity and even made a donation themselves.

Lesson: This is a clear signal that the business landscape is changing and that thanks to social media no company can hide behind corporate anonymity anymore.

#1. Blackberry. The number one spot has to go to Blackberry. Owned by RIM, the Canada-based company which pretty much started the smartphone revolution and which held 25% of the global smartphone market in 2011 managed to shoot itself in the foot in the most spectacular way possible. With its famous and crucial email push service down Blackberry, a company that should get social media, displayed the sensitivity and acumen of a dinosaur on its way out. Its Twitter service came online only at Canada time, its twitter teams were oblivious to the service issue. No one in the company knew how to respond and when a response did come it was in the form of an announcement informing Blackberry owners that a Press Release was imminent. With Tweets along the lines of #iPhone users: We told you so! Reaching a crescendo, eventually Blackberry wheeled out co-CEO Mike Lazaridis. For those who don’t know him, Lazaridis is the man who walked out of BBC Click interview on the grounds that it was unfair because it was asking too many questions on the Blackberry service and issues with the Middle East market. In his YouTube apology Lazaridis managed to never once say the word ‘sorry’ or even suggest a time when the Blackberry email service would be restored. The result: the UK, Blackberry’s largest market is shrinking, Blackberry is facing a class action lawsuit from US and Canadian users of its service who suffered the outage and, it appears, that with its stock valued at less than a third of what it was six months ago Blackberry is on its way to becoming an interesting footnote in the history of smartphone companies.

Lesson: This was the moment a global company, with a market that really stood on a knife-edge, failed to grasp what was required and its social media conduct became instrumental in its own eventual failure.  

© 2017 David Amerland. All rights reserved