To paraphrase an immortal line from Spider-Man: with great network outreach comes great responsibility.
Countless entrepreneurs, companies and organizations have benefited from the exposure afforded by a Twitter handle. However, in some cases, major corporate players have been the subject of widespread criticism, thanks to tweets that were untimely, ill-advised or just in bad taste.
The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s eastern coastline in March 2011 was a tragedy of devastating proportions. More than 15,000 people lost their lives and roughly 27,000 were injured. In addition, the monetary losses from the quake were estimated at $235 billion — the most expensive natural disaster in history.
The catastrophe began on Friday, March 11. Over that weekend, comedian Gilbert Gottfried tweeted the following:
While the above tweets are awful enough, the controversial “funnyman” published no fewer than a dozen offensive tweets about the Japanese tsunami immediately following the incident.
Mr. Gottfried’s stunt put Aflac in an awkward position. According to Forbes, the Georgia-based insurance provider did a great deal of business in Japan. Ninety percent of Japanese banks sold Aflac products in 2009, and the company did 75 percent of its business in Japan in 2010.
The problem: Mr. Gottfried provided the voice of Aflac’s longtime mascot, the Aflac duck. After more than 11 years in the voice-over role, Aflac fired the comedian in the wake of his cruel Twitter comments.
Lesson learned: Controversial figures make poor spokespeople — or, in this case, spokesducks.
British Petroleum committed a lot of wrongs before and after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and leaked nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. But tweeting insensitively about the incident wasn’t one of them.
Still, the public got fired up when a series of tweets from @BPGlobalPR surfaced in the wake of the explosion:
Even though the account gave no indication that it was not affiliated with the actual oil company, BP decided not to object to the parody account’s expression of free speech, leaving @BPGlobalPR to post numerous off-color tweets throughout the 12-week oil spill.
At first, many did not realize the account was a fake, and BP was inundated with (more) complaints. By the time the spill was contained, @BPGlobalPR had 25,000 followers — five times that of the company’s real account, @BP_America.
Lesson learned: In the wake of a public relations nightmare, silence can tweet volumes.
Every American city has been tarnished by the recession, but Detroit — aka “Motor City” — has especially suffered.
Unemployment rates in the nation’s car-manufacturing hub peaked at nearly 28 percent in July 2009. As of last February, this figure had fallen to a still-disconcerting 17.9 percent (more than double the national unemployment rate).
As a result, Detroit has been the subject of a major marketing campaign by Chrysler, one of the many American automakers hit hard by the economic slump. The campaign launched in 2011 with an ad that aired during Superbowl XLV, featuring Detroit-based rapper Eminem.
Less than a month later, this happened:
While those who commute in any major city can sympathize with these knee-jerk espousals, a lot of Chrysler subscribers were understandably upset.
The obscene tweet was linked to a blogger from New Media Strategies, who mistakenly thought he was using his personal account. Chrysler parted ways with the social media agency soon afterward by refusing to renew their contract.
The automaker was remorseful:
Lesson learned: A company is only as inspirational as its most pessimistic employee – especially in the Twitter Age.
By March 2011, Bob Parsons, CEO of Godaddy.com, already had a reputation as a misogynist. This was thanks to his company’s infamous ads, which often depicted women (some of them celebrities) in various states of undress.
So, Mr. Parsons did what arguably no one else in his position would have done: he hunted and killed an African elephant during a trip to Zimbabwe, and tweeted photos of himself posing with his kill.
He defended his actions, saying that the elephant was a “problem animal” and noting that Zimbabwe legally culls elephant herds to ensure a well-balanced population. But the practice — in which big game hunters pay game wardens to hunt the animals — is viewed as highly controversial. This was news to Mr. Parsons, apparently.
Twitter had a field day.
Lesson learned: When in doubt, hunt deer.
On January 25, 2011, millions of Egyptians began flooding the streets to begin a revolution that led to the deposition of reviled head-of-state, Hosni Mubarak, some three weeks later.
Throughout the uprising (in which more than 800 people were killed and 6,000 injured), various members of the media flooded Twitter with articles, multimedia, political commentary and words of hope and support for the protesters. New York-based clothing designer, Kenneth Cole, tweeted a different sort of message.
The backlash was immediate and vehement. Wrote one angry tweeter:
A fake account, KennethColePR, soon appeared and began to mock the designer’s initial post with a series of sarcastic tweets.
Cole eventually issued an apology:
Lesson learned: Inherently tactless remarks are always bad for business, especially when they are openly shared by the company’s founder/namesake. #nosh*t
Throughout much of 2011, Australian airline Qantas was engaged in a bitter dispute with several local labor unions. Following a string of failed negotiations, the airline grounded its fleet on Oct. 29. At the time, CNN reported the lockout would cost roughly $20 million a day. It lasted the entire weekend, canceling hundreds of flights and stranding tens of thousands of passengers.
Less than a month later, the airline announced an ill-timed competition, in which 50 sets of Qantas pajamas and luxury kits would be awarded to Twitter subscribers. The guidelines were:
More than 22,000 entries were received that day – and many of them were negative.
Qantas initially did not seem bothered by the mass complaints, and encouraged critics to “keep ‘em coming”. By the end of the day, their tune had changed:
Lesson learned: Customer feedback is valuable to any company – as long as the customers are satisfied, not embittered.