From Fortune 500 companies to mom-and-pop shops, nobody is safe from a social media fail. There are steps you can take to drastically reduce the likelihood of making public mistakes on social media, but we all know mistakes happen. If something still manages to slip through the cracks, you should know how to react quickly and get your social media strategy back on track.
Coming back from a social media fail requires preparation, transparency and a commitment to your social media community. We’ve laid out the steps you should take in more detail below.
First steps after the fail
Acknowledge the blunder immediately
Social media users expect speed and transparency from businesses—especially in the case of a social media blunder. The best thing you can do when something happens—whether it’s a typo or an offensive tweet—is to acknowledge it as soon as possible.
The second you mess up, the clock starts ticking. People will watch your account waiting for a response. Tech writers will publish posts about the mishap, offended people will call you out, and others will share the mistake and unfollow you.
So respond. Even if you’re not yet sure what happened, acknowledge that you’re aware of the issue and are looking into it.
Don’t censor negative feedback
When Volkswagen asked its Facebook followers to share what they wanted the car company to achieve in 2012, they didn’t expect over a thousand people to ask that they clean up their environmental record. Not only did Volkswagen ignore the comments, they allegedly deleted many of the unfavorable ones, leading to an even greater backlash.
Never censor negative feedback. It makes you look far more guilty and only further provokes passionate social media users who took the time to comment (and who will ensure that news of your censorship is shared far and wide.)
That said, there’s a difference between relevant negative feedback, and ruthless trolling. For help dealing with relentless trolls, check out our guide How to Deal with Trolls on Social Media.
At Hootsuite we published negative feedback in a brand video and used it to inform product improvements and changes. Most people loved that we were candid and appreciated that we used comments to shape our approach moving forward.
Social media is a public place. Allow it to remain open and respond as best you can, even to those who would speak negatively about your brand. A simple response can help shift negative perception to positive.
Apologize, for real
If you mess up, say you’re sorry—or the pitchforks won’t go away.
Cosmetic brand Lush issued an apology on Instagram after they shared obesity facts and figures while promoting a screening of the film What the Health. The company was accused of fat-shaming and ignoring their body-positive values.
View this post on Instagram
Hilary, Lush Ethics Director here. I want to say a truly sincere sorry regarding our previous posts, which have caused some of you to reach out raising concerns re body image issues and fat shaming. I am in total agreement and there is no meaningful defence I could tender for the offending post. The only people we have shamed on this occasion are ourselves! Tonight we are hosting the film 'What The Health' at our London studio, and the social posts we have published to advertise this screening do not do the film justice and do not do the issues of diversity and inclusion justice either – all of which are things we care about and should know better how to speak of. With this in mind, my suggestion is that we host a future event at our London studio to discuss these issues. I am reaching out to all of you that have expressed concern to not just come to this event, but to help create it. Who would you like to see talk about body image issues? Are there any films or content you think we should show? Let's make an evening where we can come together, celebrate, discuss and educate on this really important issue of our time.
The apology featured a photo of Lush’s Ethical Director, Hilary Jones, with a bouquet of flowers. By attaching a real person and face to the apology, as well as encouraging a constructive discussion in the comments section, Lush was able to show their audience that they were genuinely sorry for the mistake.
So when you apologize—mean it. No one can fault you for genuinely owning up to your mistake.
Fixing your social media fail
Be transparent about how you’re fixing it
You need to do more than say you’re sorry. Walk your followers through the changes you’re making to ensure it won’t happen again. If you misused a sensitive hashtag or referenced an offensive term, explain how you’re reevaluating your social media guidelines and retraining employees.
When Starbucks launched their #RaceTogether campaign in an effort to fight racism, they received immediate backlash from the public for it being a superficial and empty gesture—not supported by any real initiative from the company. To show they were taking these concerns seriously, Starbucks took action.
Acknowledging their social media fail with the #RaceTogether campaign, Starbucks President Howard Schultz announced plans to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide over the next five years in the face of President Trump’s immigration ban.
Sharing concrete steps, like Starbucks did, will help shift people’s perception of your business back into the positive category. People appreciate transparency, and efforts to correct the mistake will be a part of any conversation around the blunder moving forward.
Reach out to influential community members
If you’re active on social media, chances are that you have certain community members or brand advocates that you regularly interact with. When a social media fail happens, don’t be afraid to reach out to these valuable followers in a more personal way—especially if they’re commenting on the issue at hand.
If someone regularly advocates for your business, they may want to address the issue with their own followers. Let them in on some of the details and help them spread the correct information. They can help your business regain control of the conversation by being on your side.
If they do help put out a fire, make sure you thank them appropriately for their ongoing support. This acknowledgment will help keep them in your corner—where they’ll stay during any future blunders.
What to do once it’s fixed
Don’t forget it, learn from it
You’ll often hear people say that businesses should just “move on” from any social media fail. Social media doesn’t forget. In fact, your screw-ups are often posted and reposted to ensure they are permanently available online.
If someone asks you about the issue days, weeks, or even months after it happens, answer them. Share the insight you garnered and share your perfect record ever since.
When clients are looking for your business online, they’ll likely stumble across any social media failures that garnered public attention. If they reach out to you about it, you want to be open to that conversation. This type of transparency can only help your business in the long run.
This kind of social media blunder might be the wake-up call you brand needed to put a greater focus on social media security. Train your staff on how to use social media tools properly, your social media publishing process, and the voice and tone you want to be using with your online following. For more information on securing your social media strategy, see our guide Social Media Crisis Management: How to Prepare and Execute a Plan.
Share your experience with others
The lessons you learn from failure can help other people avoid a similar fate. Don’t be afraid to share your experience with your following. Write a blog post or film a video shedding light into what happened and how you’re making sure it won’t ever happen again. Talk about the shift in thinking that resulted from the mistake. Be open and your following will respond in kind.
While not exactly a social media failure, we shared some of our worst-performing blog posts and what we learned from them on the Hootsuite blog. People responded very positively, appreciating our openness about where we went wrong.
Even if your experience isn’t all that relatable to your following, sharing it is a great way to humanize your brand.
Don’t let a mistake scare you off social media
When something negative happens on social media, your own team or stakeholders in the company may overreact and ask you to scale back your social marketing activities.
Ignore them. Most brands that experience backlash on social media see their sentiment recover in a very short amount of time. The positive sentiment will come back even faster for those who respond appropriately.
Stop promoting your brand as you clean up the mistake, but once the dust has settled get back to business. Keep promoting content, engaging your community, and driving leads.
Social media is such an asset for your business—the worst outcome of a social media fail would be to give up on it.
This is an updated version of a post originally published in April 2015. It has been updated by Dara Fontein.