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2016's Great Big Social Media Fails and Lessons Learned

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Ah, 2016... It was one for the record books, no? From what may go down as the craziest election in US history to having to say goodbye to far too many of pop culture's most treasured icons (I miss you, Willy Wonka), 2016 left an indelible mark.

Elections and celebrity farewells weren't the only place that 2016 left its calling card; its footprints are stamped all over social media, my favorite playground. Social media as we know it has been around for nearly two decades now. So, we should all have a handle on how this whole social media thing works, and not make some of the same silly mistakes that we've seen in the past, right?

Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In his book Revival, Stephen King scored a bull's-eye when he wrote, "Fox Mulder [of the TV series The X-Files] was right about one thing: the truth is out there, and anyone in our current age, where almost everyone is living in a glass house, can find it with a computer and an Internet connection."

But even now, two decades down the road, some of us haven't gotten the memo that anything you do on social media is easily discovered, shared, and preserved for posterity.

And it's not just your average Joes clumsily hacking and slashing their way through the social jungle; plenty of people and organizations that really should've known better—like celebrities, brands, and even government agencies—managed to run afoul of social media's Internet vigilante mob. (And let's not even talk about Kanye West's particular brand of Twitter crazy.)


2016 provided fertile ground for social media goofs and gaffes by marketers who didn't put enough thought into what might happen after they clicked on the tweet, post, publish, or share buttons. By now, you want to dive right into the good stuff, so without further ado, I give you my list of 2016's biggest social media fails and the lessons we can learn from them.

No. 1 Social Media Fail

With great fanfare, Microsoft introduced "Tay," a spunky AI Twitter chatbot designed to engage with younger, tech-savvy social audiences. A tempting opportunity too good for Twitter's troll army to pass up! The trolls descended in force upon poor Tay.

Before you could say Godwin's Law, the trolls had turned Microsoft's wee chatbot into a hate-spewing, foul-mouthed lunatic. It caught the company unawares, leaving it scrambling to delete offensive messages and blunt the negative impact to its brand.

And what's worse? It happened twice.

Lesson learned: Prepare for the worst. Draw up your crisis plan in advance, keep it handy, and execute it swiftly.

No. 2 Social Media Fail

When something so heinous happens that it becomes forever seared into the national consciousness, you treat it as sacrosanct. You don't mock it. You don't disrespect it. And you certainly don't capitalize on it with a tasteless ad on social media, as Miracle Mattress quickly found out.

The retailer's "Twin Towers Sale" Facebook ad (complete with two collapsing towers of mattresses) quickly went viral, earning the wrath of... oh, pretty much anyone who saw it.

Reaction was severe. Employees received death threats, repeated apologies by the store's owner were rebuffed, and Miracle Mattress closed temporarily. It reopened only after receiving forgiveness from 9/11 widow Lisa Paterson, who taught the owner a lesson in humility and grace.

An (dis)honorable mention here goes to Walmart for recreating the twin towers with 12-packs of soda.

Lesson learned: Insensitivity never sells. Don't be tone deaf in your social communications unless you want to face an angry mob.

No. 3 Social Media Fail

Speaking of capitalizing on the tragedy of others, coat-tailing on the death of a celebrity is tacky at best, coldhearted at worst. More than one company was forced to shamefacedly eat crow, having tried to use the passing of a beloved pop icon to advance business objectives.

Venerable brands Cinnabon, Cheerios, and Crocs all fell into this trap, leaving audiences aghast at their questionable choice of "tributes" to stars we bid farewell to during 2016.

Lesson learned: Don't use someone's loss for your own gain. Unless you're a funeral director, mourning and moneymaking are mutually exclusive.

No. 4 Social Media Fail

You know how you sometimes get that funny feeling in the back of your mind? The one that says, "Hey, you might want to stop and think about this." That's the universe trying to get you to pause to reconsider your current course of action so you don't end up doing something really, really stupid.

Like Playboy model Dani Mathers, former mayor of Clay, West Virginia, Beverly Whaling, and Clay County Development Corp. Director Pamela Taylor, and Chili's Bar and Grill:

  • Mathers grossly violated the privacy of a fellow gym-goer by posting an inappropriate, body-shaming photo (complete with snarky caption) of her to Snapchat, promptly costing Ms. Mathers her Playboy gig and resulting in criminal charges.
  • Whaling and Taylor both faced public outrage and eventually lost their jobs after insulting first lady Michelle Obama on Facebook.
  • As for Chili's, it was forced to remove one of its restaurant managers and then issue a public apology. After questioning veteran Walker about his service record, the chain's manager snidely snatched away a meal Chili's had given to him as part of a 2016 Veteran's Day promotion—all captured on video and then published via social media for all to see.

    Thankfully, the ensuing backlash did result in a positive outcome by bringing Chili's support and public attention to Walker's efforts to feed homeless and hungry veterans.

Lesson learned: Again, on the Internet, everyone lives in glass houses: Everything you do, post, or share on social will be seen and preserved forever. Make sure you're posting only worthy content that will boost your brand's value and stand the test of time (and won't get you arrested). And be sure your social media policies include a code of conduct for situations where employees may be filmed or photographed.

No. 5 Social Media Fail

And finally, we come to the little boat that could—Boaty McBoatface. A seemingly terrific way to raise awareness among audiences—inviting the Internet and social mediaverse to come up with a name for your multimillion-dollar research vessel—turned out to be not the smartest idea, in hindsight. But that's just what Britain's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) did; and rather than proposing more dignified names, netizens and social-ites came up with the whimsical moniker Boaty McBoatface—and it stuck.

It put NERC's CEO, Duncan Wingham, in a tough spot: either accept the popularly elected name (and the guffaws of the scientific research community), or ignore public sentiment, deal with the firestorm sure to follow, and go with something more fitting.

Luckily, Mr. Wingham is a smart chap who came up with the best solution possible: He gave his new boat a more appropriate name—the RRS Sir David Attenborough—but also christened one of the vessel's mini-subs as Boaty McBoatface, thereby appeasing social media audiences.

Lesson learned: OK, so maybe this was more of a win than a fail. But, it's a prime example of how a great social media campaign idea can get turned inside out in a heartbeat. Examine your campaign concepts and strategies from every angle before launching, and expect the unexpected.

* * *

This list of 2016 fails serves as a good reminder that social media can be a powerful force for good, or it could warp into a full-blown crisis communications scenario. Which side of the fence it comes down on depends on how you approach your social communications.

Having an enlightened, detailed strategy that takes every angle into consideration (including how to handle any blowback your campaigns may trigger) will help you avoid making a damaging faux pas.


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Melissa Drozdowski is social media director at strategic communications company Interprose, where she helps clients make better social communications choices daily.

Twitter: @Melissa_iPR

LinkedIn: Melissa Drozdowski

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