Bearing the blunder

We’ve learned enough about social media by now to know it has incredible potential – to both expand your brand, and to destroy it.

I liked reading the examples of successful campaigns (revisiting the Old Spice one made me reflect and chuckle, I love that guy), but I was also really curious to learn more about social media campaigns that didn’t quite work out; the ones that shot high and fell hard. How did those companies deal with their failures? What were the outcomes? Does a bad social media campaign ruin your brand for life?


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I studied communications and public relations in school (like a decade ago so things have obviously changed a lot), but I remember really enjoying the segments discussing crisis communications.

This is such a huge part of managing your company’s brand. You need a team of experts fully prepared, at the front lines of defense, in case something goes terribly wrong; whether it’s a toxic troll demolishing your image, one of your products gone bad, or a band wagon of negative activity online, you need to be ready for the worst.

More importantly, you need to know how to respond. You kind of have to think of your brand as a person, with human qualities and traits. What would this person do if someone said something terrible about them? What would this person do if they made a big mistake? Would they be gracious and apologize, or fight and stubbornly defend their actions?

Personifying your brand is a tremendous part of building it.

close up photo of man wearing black suit jacket doing thumbs up gesture

Photo by Lukas on

I remember really liking the example of the Maple Leafs debacle. Following news of a deadly Listeriosis outbreak affecting their products, Maple Leaf meats CEO Michael McCain was faced with the daunting task of confronting a sea of disgruntled customers. It was possibly one of the biggest company errors in history. But the reason he went down in PR history was all because of his response.

What did he do, you ask? It’s simple.

He apologized.


Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain was voted 2008 Business Newsmaker of the Year in 2008 in a survey by The Canadian Press for his handling of the deadly listeriosis outbreak linked to a company plant in Toronto.(Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

McCain faced the public with such empathy, grace and sincerity, that he hit the top of the charts in crisis communications strategies. The public accepted his apology, thanked him for his candor, and Maple Leaf Meats lived to see another day. It’s amazing what can happen if you’re just real with people – if you simply just appeal to the human within them. How did Maple Leaf personify their brand? They made him a genuine, relatable guy who knows when he’s done something wrong – and who doesn’t like a guy like that? Who doesn’t forgive someone who takes the blame and pleads for forgiveness?

Inspired by my fond memories of McCain, I did a little reading and came across an interesting article that highlighted some of the most well renowned social media blunders.

Honestly, some of them were hard to read.

The first example was recalling a swiftly terrible move from the US Air Force. Remember the whole yanny-laurel debate that conquered our social media pages for a week back in May 2018?  So a lot of brands tried to jump on the coattails of that fun little experiment. While people were arguing and debating whether the audio clip said “yanny” or “laurel”, brands were piping in and posting social media posts, writing things like “forget yanny and laurel, pretty sure you just hear [insert brand here]!”

Super corny, right? But whatever, they did their best and they didn’t hurt anyone.

The US Air Force, on the other hand, completely fumbled.

In response to all the uproar, they tweeted:

“The Taliban Forces in Farah city #Afghanistan would much rather have heard #Yanny or #Laurel than the deafening #BRRRT they got courtesy of our #A10. Read more:”.

Basically, they took a funny Internet debate and brought the death of other humans into the situation. So what’s this brand’s personality like? Well aside from the fact that they should have used Bitly for the link, they were unprofessional, distasteful, and widely inappropriate – to name a few.

Listen, I do stand up comedy. I get the difficulty in trying to make light of heavy situations, and help people laugh about the things in life that suck. But there are just some topics you really shouldn’t touch.

So what do we do? 

Maybe with super sensitive topics like death and war, just go easy on the humor tactic. And honestly, even the fact that a serious organization like the US Air Force tried to ride the popularity wave of a silly Internet meme stands to question. Those guys are too professional to pull off that kind of tomfoolery – stay in your lane US Air Force.

Everything seems to have worked out for them though. They basically did exactly what McCain did – they accepted full responsibility for the error, and apologized with sincerity. I feel like McCain may have set the bar on crisis communications – when you’ve so clearly made a mistake, perhaps it’s just best practice to cut your losses and say sorry. That’s what I believe anyways – in life, and in social media.

What’s your policy?

The article was a helpful read, anyway. It’s good to know what works, but even better to know what doesn’t. But reading about the social media blunders just reinforces the opinions I felt in my previous discussion post – that you kind of need to “get it” in order to write these things.

That guy who wrote the tweet for US Air Force clearly didn’t have enough insight, human understanding or emotional intelligence to know that something like that would NOT fly. If companies fail in their social media campaigns, should they fire the person responsible and hire someone more emotionally intelligent?

At the end of the day, social media is all so new and confounding. Only in the last five years have we been able to solidify best practices based on real-life concrete examples of what does, or doesn’t work.

In the broad scheme of social history, social media is still in its beta phase. We’re all trying to navigate the abyss together, so mistakes will obviously be made.

I wonder when we’ll stop being so forgiving though? Will there ever come a time when social media is streamlined so well that we won’t have so many mistakes?

Facebook post: Social media for business is tough. We’re in the beta phase, and mistakes are bound to happen. But how do we deal with those mistakes? Can brands survive the turmoil of a bad social media campaign? Read more here:

Twitter post: So your social media campaign didn’t work. What now? #blunders #crisiscommunications






One thought on “Bearing the blunder

  1. This was a very captivating read Holly. I had completely forgotten about the Maple Leaf blunder. You brought forward an excellent example of a failure turned success. While I was reading this, I was reminded of the Lac Megantic train accident that caused the loss of many lives and how the powers that be at the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic took so much time to respond to the incident.

    I found your post was easy to read through and very engaging. Keep up the good work!

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