Rats, burgers, wit and honesty

“How can they be so popular when there are rats running around in their bun packages?” claimed one tweet. “Fingernail in my burger,” bemoaned another. “I lost 50lbs in six months after I quit working and eating there,” claimed someone else.

These are just some of the reactions a fast food giant received on Twitter last year when it started a corporate social media conversation. What had been intended as a way of encouraging customers to share their happy experiences in the restaurant quickly turned on its head. It was one of the most famous social media disasters of 2012. Hitting headlines all over the world, the sentiments were repeated over and over again.

It showed just how quickly control over brand conversations can be taken away from those trying to start them. Tales like this are far from rare. Already this year we’ve seen another burger chain and well-known high street retailer fall prey to Twitter nightmares, both of their accounts being hijacked and used to send potentially ruinous tweets.

According to research by SAP, it takes an average of seven negative comments on social platforms to make consumers think worse of a brand and eight will make them think twice about buying. Despite damning figures, these incidents don’t have to become branding bêtes noires. With the right reaction, companies can alleviate a lot of the damage done.

“In most cases, the two key principles are ‘be open’ and ‘keep a dialogue going’,” says Jessica Owens, social media research manager at strategic insight agency Face.

“The defining feature of a social media crisis is that the story’s already escaped out of the brand’s control, so an old-school ‘no comment’ approach allows it to run away entirely. Sharing all the knowledge you have keeps the company’s voice central in the discussion and allows you to start building a narrative that can help resolve matters.”

Social media disasters are an unfortunate reality of business today. Hasty reactions by the wrong people can cause more damage than good. Nestlé found this back in 2010 when it received criticism on its Facebook page over its use of palm oil. Nestlé’s Facebook administrator responded: “Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it’s our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus,” said one comment. It didn’t go down very well. According to the experts, having a plan in place could prevent this kind of reckless reaction.

It takes an average of seven negative comments on social platforms to make consumers think worse of a brand and eight will make them think twice about buying

“Make sure you get the right structure for managing a potential social media crisis in place from the outset, so your social team and everyone else knows what to do, and who to call the moment a possible issue is identified,” says Phil Borge, associate director of Threepipe PR.

“A crisis is much easier to manage, or even avoid altogether, if you know what can be dealt with within the team straight away and what needs to be escalated higher up within the organisation.”

One of the most common mistakes made by brands in these situations is to keep quiet and hope that it will blow over. The study by SAP also found that 52 per cent of people think brands should respond directly if someone leaves a negative comment on a social media platform and 48 per cent of consumers expect a response to such a comment within half a day. Silence is not an option.

By reacting swiftly to an emerging social media disaster, a brand can halt any reputation damage in its tracks. A bit of humour and honesty could even turn blight into a blessing as O2 found during its network outage.

“We’ve seen clients such as @O2 take on a crisis like a major network outage and completely turn the story around by mid-afternoon,” says Ms Owens.

“Their social media customer care team responded to literally thousands of angry customers per hour – they had to get Twitter to lift their rate limit to do so – using a little humour where required to communicate that they’re real people working hard at fixing the problem.”

Within a day of the catastrophe unfolding, O2 managed to turn irked tweeters into impressed ones. The team was honest, replied to customers directly and, where possible, responded with wit.

Publications, including The Daily Telegraph and WIRED, ran stories extolling O2’s reaction, labelling it a “master class” in social media management. It is a case that all brands could learn from showing that, despite the outage, on social media they remain “better connected” – just as their company motto declares.