How to manage a Twitterstorm

You’ve made a mistake. You posted something that’s gone down badly and now your reputation hangs in the balance.

It’s a common scenario in our super-critical social media community. Online lynch mobs are at the ready, waiting for brands and businesses to put a toe out of line. One minute everything’s dandy. The next it feels like you’re running for your life with your tail between your legs.

Bad news has always traveled fast. These days it’s supersonic. Since its launch in 2006, Twitter has turned into a news-spreading machine. Posting is instant, with brands expected to post considered responses to events and queries, right now. Which is often part of the problem – people react or post without thinking. Then they realise their mistake and click ‘delete’, but it’s too late. The Tweet has already been retweeted thousands of times, living forever in the Twittersphere.

It’s no wonder people end up throwing process out the window to keep up with the lightning-fast pace of public discourse. Just one Tweet, one comment, or even retweeting or liking the wrong post can get you sent to the social media sin bin. Brands and individuals are hounded so badly when they mess up, it can sometimes be hard to return.

According to Jon Ronson, author of ‘So You’ve been Publicly Shamed’, nowadays, people get "humiliated to a degree that would have been thought excessive even in the 18th century." A social media study by Demos mapped UK Twitter users over a three-week period, and found 6,500 unique users were targeted by 10,000 explicitly aggressive and misogynistic Tweets.

But when it comes to social media shaming, does it always have to end in Twitter tears? When you get hit by a wave of backlash, is it possible to turn things around? Surely there’s room for redemption if you take the correct steps to make things right.

How to Positively Ride Out an Unexpected Wave

Of course, there are some situations that are pretty hard to come back from. But if you’ve been hit by the wrath of the mob, and you’ve made an error, before you go give up and go into hibernation for all eternity, consider this. You just might be able to turn things around if you play your cards just right. Vice have come up with ‘the five stages of internet shaming’.

  • The callout (you’ve been caught out)
  • The storm (an almighty storm has hit)
  • The disappearance (deleting said Tweet)
  • The statement (a.k.a the apology)
  • The legacy (where do you go from here?)

These are the standard steps that people tend to take when their online efforts have backfired. But every case should be treated individually.

There are a few different options here, each of which fits different scenarios. But our main piece of advice? Acknowledgment. The social jury hates it when people are oblivious to their crimes – it just fuels their rage.

If you’ve offended or upset people then you’ll also need to apologise sincerely. This is not the time to be making a joke of the whole thing, as you could just fuel the fire even more. Know the saying, ‘don’t poke the bear’? This applies to a Twitterstorm. You don’t want to go from a rainy day to a typhoon now, do you?

American author Jonah Lehrer made a catastrophic blunder which ruined his career. He published a book called ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’, which contains fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan. Once his lies were unearthed, journalists everywhere were outraged and he was obliterated on Twitter.

Lehrer, as detailed in ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ by Jon Ronson, had an epic apology fail when he dressed up his behavior as a psychological concept, rather than just accepting the blame. This only frustrated people further.

Minor mistakes or errors that can be laughed at may, to some extent, be able to be met with a lighthearted comment. Brands recognising they’ve done wrong and not taking themselves too seriously can come out on top.

Jon Ronson’s book discusses a sex scandal involving Max Mosely, the former president of the FIA, and son of Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Mosely felt he was able to come back from his scandal due to not being ashamed. Far from it. He actually ended up suing the paper in a privacy case, and won £60k.

Jon Ronson quotes Mosely in his book saying, "as soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed, the whole thing crumbles." This tactic worked for him, but can it work for others?

What if you’re dealing with an overzealous or careless employee? Perhaps it’s time to give them some additional training, or consider changing your social media team. You want a responsive team who know the best course of action in a social media crisis. The key here is taking some sort of appropriate action, rather than allowing the storm to build without comment.

According to David Stoch, director of Meerkat PR, "Damage happens when there is a delay in coming clean and stating the remedy. Clean, swift and credible action can save brands from long-term PR damage. ‘Sorry’ means nothing, but timing and remedies do."

We’ll look at more examples of Twitterstorms and look at some strategies to deal with them.

When it all went wrong

Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton, a champion racing car driver with 5.7 million followers. You’d think if you had that many people following your movements you’d probably consider things carefully before posting. In December, he posted a video of himself publicly shaming his nephew for wearing a dress. Suffice to say it did not go down well.

It’s a double shaming, people then shamed Lewis for shaming his nephew. However, one good thing to come out of the backlash from this is that there was a huge discussion around how far to take shaming, and the power of the online lynch mob.

Virgin Trains

And Virgin Trains staff showed how not to respond to a sexist complaint, by making the situation worse. When a customer Tweeted her dislike at being called ‘honey’ by a member of staff, Virgin Trains Tweeted back a shockingly sarcastic reply saying ‘sorry for the mess up Emily, would you prefer “pet” or “love” next time? This didn’t impress their customers too much, and caused a huge amount of anger and discontent.

Netflix

The uber cool TV and Film streaming service recently got criticised for Tweeting creepy stats about its customers. Such as the fact that 53 people watched A Christmas Prince every day for 18 days. They may not be breaking any privacy laws, but this raised questions over what info about their customers they should and shouldn’t share.

Morrisons

UK supermarket Morrisons failed when someone posted a picture of Morrisons products, asking which one a friend wanted. A member of staff in the store intervened and said taking pictures was against store policy. Then three different members of staff responded on Twitter and made what was a minor issue a lot worse.

Sephora

Another example of this is the Sephora hashtag which missed out the ‘O’ in #CountdownToBeauty..

Making the most out of a potentially tricky situation

Back in 2009, a video was released on YouTube of two Domino's employees doing unpleasant things to the food they were preparing. It was pretty shocking for customers to see and quickly got picked up by the worldwide media.

But Dominos have had a comeback since then. In the short term, they set up a Twitter account at the time to deal with questions. Now the brand now has 1.25 million followers on Twitter and managed to claw their way back from the scandal.

Is all publicity good publicity?

There’s an age-old notion that if people are talking about you, even if in a negative way, it’s a good thing and it’s fair to say that the answer in most cases is no. How you react to initial bad publicity will determine how much fire you’ll end up having to fight. June Kenton of lingerie brand Rigby & Peller published a book called ‘Storm in a D Cup’ containing very mild personal accounts of her dealings with the Royal family, in contravention of the terms of her Royal Warrant. Consequently, the brand was stripped of its warrant, became a news story and trended for a week on Twitter, with many poking fun at the brand.

In 2015, hackers leaked the names of 30 million people who were using infidelity website Ashley Madison, causing a huge storm, shaming thousands of married men and women and making their ‘anonymous’ service not so anonymous. Did it kill off Ashley Madison? Far from it. The brand is bigger than ever.

Ever watched the film Borat? It pokes fun at the country Kazakhstan, but after the film, Hotels.com reported a 300% increase in requests for information about the country. Often, it’s the smaller, less known brands that do better from bad publicity, even if it is from a Twitterstorm. Researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Business say that occasionally bad publicity can increase sales for lesser known brands.

Can you pretend it isn’t happening?

The thing about crowds is they usually want to get some sort of response out of their shame.

Some people bury their head in the sand in the hope that their persecutors will simply get bored. But the problem with the internet is everyone has an opinion, so even if you aren’t talking about your scandal, other people will be – and you may want to take action to manage that.

Some may try to ignore the mass hysteria, whilst others may try to get rid of the evidence or fight it before it goes viral. This often backfires, resulting in the 'Streisand effect' – when an individual or organisation tries to take something down or apply legal pressure and it only results in more attention being paid to the asset in question.

Preventative policies

It’s clear that small and large businesses alike need to have clear preventative policies, as well as crisis management procedures. Dedicated playbooks on when to engage with genuine queries and comments, and when to steer clear of trolls.

According to the 2017 WASP Barcode Technologies’ State of Small Business Report, only 37% of small businesses said they use designated business social media accounts to reach their audiences. Brands need to be reachable on Twitter to respond to customer complaints in a constructive way. Twitter users send more than 100,000 questions, complaints, and comments to major American airlines alone every month. It’s certainly worth having a designated employee who is responsible for responding to issues. And, if you’ve got a social media team, each and every member needs to be on board with your management strategy.

Lastly, here’s an example from close to home. When fashion brand Vetements used the DHL logo in their fashion line, instead of taking legal action and calling out Vetements, DHL jumped at the opportunity for a collaboration. The result was a huge success, with the Vetements DHL shirts selling out and fetching around $252. News outlets around the world covered the unusual collaboration avidly. Bloggers and celebrities Tweeted pictures in their DHL t- shirts and the line was in extremely high demand with people scrambling to buy Vetements clothing.

In conclusion, it seems you can come back from any Twitter Storm if you pick the right strategy. The key takeaway here is to make sure all your staff are informed, that there’s a proofing and approval process for social media posts, with specific topics to avoid, and a clear plan of action for when people make unfortunate mistakes.

DHL acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we operate, live and gather as employees, and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.