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Sailing Stormy Seas: How to Embrace Negative Noise on Social Media

It’s just another typical day at the office. The sun is shining, the birds are singingwhat more could you ask for?

You sit down at your desk and open up your email only to find a message that reveals that your social media channels somehow has dozensnay, maybe even hundreds of notifications, as though they all seemed to pop up overnight.


What was once an innocuous tweeta harmless joke, a silly image, or, even worse, an accidental personal tweethas somehow made its way onto your company’s page. People are rightfully angry, and they’re pretty vocal about it, too.

In a situation like this, has your social media/HR team been briefed on how to handle this kind of crisis?

How do you decide what’s best for your brand?

Unless you’ve made these decisions in advance, when your notification count is growing exponentially, you won’t have time to plan out a well-thought course of action. All you can do is react in defenseand HOPE that something hasn’t really hurt your brand reputation in the process.

“It never fails. The most scandalous single comment about your business, your brand, or its people, will be the number one search result. Customers often understand this shift in power better than the companies they’re talking about.”

Ken Herron, Social Media Guru and Head of Marketing of Unified Inbox (Source)

When leveraged correctly, branded content can be a powerful tool in any business’ arsenal. Social media allows brands to connect with their audiences on a more intimate, real-time level, and these interactions can help build a brand’s trust and positive brand image in the public eye.

However, the nature of these interactions can often be unpredictable. While embracing negative social media noise (and the ensuing PR debacle that follows) is tricky business, surviving these events ultimately boils down to having a contingency plan in placea vital element in any content strategy.

Having a content strategy in place means that instead of behaving in a reactionary manner to whatever has happened (aka going into defensive mode), your brand will already have laid out a course of action for how to respond to these events appropriatelya proactive approach which is vital in a rapid-paced digital world.

In this post, we’ll go over some examples of brands that have encountered social media disasters and how they’ve handled them, pointing out instances in which brands succeeded or failed and the reasons why.

Branding is a set of techniques designed to generate cultural relevance.”

-Douglas Holt (Source)

If a brand’s success on social media is directly linked to their ability to generate cultural relevancetheir ability to connect with audiences on a meaningful levelhow does this idea begin to influence the nature of social media interaction between brands and consumers?

One great example of misappropriated cultural relevance comes from the UK clothing company Black Milk. To celebrate Star Wars Day on May 4th in 2014, the brand decided to post the following image to their Facebook page: (Source)

While the brand was clearly trying to capitalize on a popular cultural phenomenonin this case, the unofficial Star Wars holidaytheir approach to doing so revealed a lack of understanding as to the cultural relevance of such an image. Many fans felt as though it depicted the ‘Reality’ image as undesirable, inspiring an onslaught of responses on their Facebook page. It also, strangely enough, violated two two of the company’s own “commandments”:




(Black Milk Facebook)

Though the meme may have been an attempt at a playful joke, it was the company’s reaction to the comments that exacerbated the situation into a full-blown PR catastrophe.(Source)

Rather than taking the time to respond to the comments on the page, the Black Milk administrators saw it fit to ban users from the Facebook page entirely, deleting their comments along the way.

Their approach to embracing the negative social media noise generated by such a post was to ignore itan approach which backfired spectacularly. Many of the brand’s long time customers took to the page to voice their disappointment with the management team at their refusal to apologize in the name of “integrity”. It even spawned an entire Tumblr page dedicated to illustrating poor community management practices in the company called “The Truth About Black Milk Clothing”. As the Daily Dot pointed out,

By not being open to criticism of a meme they decided to post, how can consumers believe they will listen to product feedback? By deleting comments and banning people they are fostering a closed, exclusive community instead of the positive, open one they claim to support.” (Source)

By choosing to try and use an image designed to invoke cultural relevancy without a deeper understanding of their audience, Black Milk managed to alienate a significant amount of their audience in just one social media post, an event which contributed to a severely diminished brand reputation.

How then, in an event of an unknown disaster, can a company plan to respond positively?

One great example comes from the brand Adidas, who posted an image of a same-sex couple to their Instagram on Valentine’s Day, captioned with “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”

While some fans commended Adidas’ on their commitment to representing all communities in their social media, a large number of viewers took to Instagram to express their outrage over the image. Adidas responded to these comments in a simple, yet incredibly effective manner:

By taking the time to respond to the comments in a way that demonstrated empathy and the cultural sensitivity of their audience, Adidas succeeded in transforming a slew of hateful comments into an opportunity to positively demonstrate their brand values, winning over many fans in the process:(Source)

What’s the best channel for brands to communicate with their audiences?

While the nature of social media makes it impossible to predict when and where tragedy might strike, having a set content strategy in place makes it possible for a brand to respond with dignity and grace.

In order to foster an environment in which open dialogue is encouraged, it’s vital that brands go beyond what’s trending to understand what platforms your audience participates on and the cultural significance of what they use those platforms for. This, then, should inform the strategy with which your brand chooses to respond. Rather than apply a ‘one communication strategy fits all’ method to social media, brands should take the time to reach out to their audiences directly, a practice which can foster increased brand perception and lifelong brand ambassadors in the process.

Here are some takeaways that brands can use to guide them in case of a social media crisis:

1. Stay Proactive and Create A Contingency Plan

When American Airlines tweeted an unfortunate NSFW photo from their account, it took them nearly a full hour before responding to (and taking down) the image. To stay up to date on events surrounding your brand, it’s a good idea to incorporate monitoring your brand name and associated keywords into your content strategy. Tools like Google Alerts, Mention and BuzzSumo are all great options to start with that will notify you at the first sign of trouble, giving brands some much needed time with which to craft a response strategy.

2. Know Your Brand Values 

By emphasizing Adidas’ commitment to equality, the brand managed to turn a potentially catastrophic event into one that greatly improved its brand perception. Establishing your brand values early on and knowing when to stick by them is a great way for brands to demonstrate their positive values in a meaningful way.

3. Create Positive Content

Content that’s inspirational in nature like the Valentine’s Day post by Adidasrather than content that focuses on highlighting differencesis much more likely to resonate with audiences in a positive, more memorable manner.

4. Embrace Negative Noise

While isolating hateful comments may seem like a good way to maintain a degree of damage control, it’s a strategy that fails to take into account the feelings of your audience and can ultimately cause more harm than good. By choosing to block comments on their Facebook page rather than address them head on, Black Milk managed to create a space in which open dialogue was closed off to members of their communitya move that only continued to isolate their key audience.

“The best way to deal with a negative online comment is to own it. Immediately respond on the channel where the comment was made. Thank them for bringing the matter to your attention, and immediately take it off-line. Off of the Internet. Off of email. Talk to the customer over the phone. Not only does this give you the added contextual insights from speaking with them in person, but enables you to resolve the issue out of the public’s eye.”

Ken Herron, Social Media Guru and Head of Marketing of Unified Inbox (Source)

Which brings us to…

5Show Some Love

Empathy is key. Rather than trying to block out negative comments, brands should embrace these instances as opportunities by which they can remind their audience of their brand values in a positive, caring manner. Though mistakes may be inevitable, a well-thought out apology shouldn’t be optional.  A brand like Black Milk, for instance, could have potentially saved themselves a huge wave of backlash, had they simply opted to apologize to their audience for the misunderstanding in a kind, sincere manner.

After all, a good brand isn’t just about a product or service, but rather about the values it encapsulatesand the hearts of those that believe in it, too.