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In Pictures: 12 shocking social media horror stories

There are right ways for companies to use social media, and there are wrong ways. These 12 horror stories, spotlighted by a set of digital marketing professionals, are perfect examples of what organizations should never (ever) do on social sites.

  • There are right ways for companies to use social media, and there are wrong ways. These 12 horror stories, spotlighted by a set of digital marketing professionals, are perfect examples of what organizations should never (ever) do on social sites.

  • 4AutoInsuranceQuote.com's Paul Walker Tweets On Nov. 30, 2013, actor Paul Walker, of "Fast & Furious" fame, died in a horrific car crash. The next day, 4AutoInsuranceQuote.com repeatedly tweeted that it hoped Walker had car insurance. The company even tweeted directly to Walker's Twitter handle (@RealPaulWalker): "Yo Paul did u have auto insurance for that crash? Hope so." The company also tweeted the car insurance question to mainstream news outlets such as Time, "which of course further fueled the public outrage and social media backlash," says David Erickson, vice president of online marketing, Karwoski & Courage. "This is an example of horrible judgment, and the only way to prevent something like this is to ensure the people running your social media accounts are decent human beings."

  • U.S. Airways' Pornographic Tweet "The pornographic U.S. Airways tweet from April 2014 will go down in infamy and haunt the dreams of social media professionals for years to come," says Dee Anna McPherson, vice president of marketing, Hootsuite. A link to a salacious picture posted on the airline's Twitter account quickly went viral. CNN and other media outlets reported on it. "U.S. Airways stood by the employee responsible for the explicit blunder, citing it as an honest mistake," says McPherson. "It was a brave choice, considering the gaffe dominated Internet conversation for about a week, and the brand led trending Twitter conversations for days. While it may certainly have been a simple mistake, it underscores the need for care and process when posting to social."

  • DiGiorno Pizza's #WhyIStayed Tweet In September 2014, thousands of women took to Twitter to talk about why they stayed in violent relationships, using the hashtag #WhyIStayed. DiGiorno Pizza hijacked the trending tag with this tweet: "#WhyIStayed You had pizza." "The fallout was significant, making national news and being featured on industry sites as a prime example of what not to do," says Mallory Oliver, marketing manager, SEER Interactive. Following the blow-up, DiGiorno Pizza tweeted "a million apologies," explaining that the company "did not read what the hashtag was about before posting." The misfire illustrates why brands should understand the context behind a trending hashtag before trying to "piggyback" on it, according to Jarone Ashkenazi, account manager, PMBC Group. "Although social media is instantaneous, you must understand the conversation you're participating in."

  • New York City Police Department's #myNYPD Hashtag "When you create a custom hashtag, be prepared for the bad with the good," says Gayane Margaryan, online communications associate, African Wildlife Foundation. "Social media users are ruthless, and if they have a negative experience, they'll use your hashtag to talk about it." Exhibit A: NYPD's #myNYPD hashtag, which was designed to let New York City citizens share their experiences with the police department. The hashtag "has really taken off," Margaryan says, "but not in the way they hoped." Some people tweeted complaints while others shared photos of NYPD officers "in less-than-desirable circumstances." If your company or organization suffers from public criticism, Margaryan says, "why encourage more via a hashtag that aggregates all the replies into one convenient space?"

  • J.P. Morgan's #askJPM Twitter Chat In November 2013, J.P. Morgan, which at the time was receiving negative press related to U.S. Justice Department investigations, decided to hold a Twitter chat. The chat was "intended in part to give college students an opportunity to communicate directly with a senior executive," according to a company spokesman. "Who didn't know this was going to result in a horror story? The questions, submitted in advance of the chat, were so horrendous that J.P.Morgan decided to cancel it," says African Wildlife Foundation's Margaryan. The company "could have chosen a different platform to host a chat/conversation," she says. For instance, it might have scheduled a public Google Hangout, "where viewers don't necessarily see the questions being asked, and you can moderate."

  • Kenneth Cole's 'Boots on the Ground' Tweet Fashion brand Kenneth Cole felt backlash in 2011 after it notoriously made light of the Arab Spring protests by tweeting: "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online." To many people's amazement, the brand struck again in September 2013, causing another firestorm. This time, Kenneth Cole "newsjacked" the U.S. government's decision to take military action in Syria with this tweet: "'Boots on the ground' or not, let's not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear." "That lack of repentance is enough to get a brand permanently labeled as insensitive," says Hootsuite's McPherson. "The lessons here seem obvious but clearly bear repeating: Don't make light of Middle Eastern politics, and definitely don't do it twice."

  • Black Milk 'Geeky Goddess' Facebook Fail May 4 is "Star Wars" day. In an effort to leverage the sci-fi film series' popularity, Australian fashion brand Black Milk Clothing posted on Facebook what some considered a sexist meme comparing two women — one sexy, the other nerdy. "Understandably, fans didn't take well to this," says Margaryan of the African Wildlife Foundation, especially since the brand's "commandments" listed on Facebook state it "shall not make critical comments on others' bodies." Instead of acknowledging the faux pas, the brand called its critics sexist, deleted their messages, and even banned some from its Facebook page, Margaryan says. The lesson learned: "Own up to your mistakes," she says. "Explain yourself and ask for forgiveness. You might be surprised at how forgiving your audience is."

  • PUMA's Cannibalism Tweet During this summer's World Cup, Uruguay striker Luis Suarez received a four-month ban for biting an opponent. PUMA, the sportswear company supplying jerseys for the Italian team, tweeted, "Players look damn good in those PUMA shirts. Hard to resist taking a bite." An image of the PUMA soccer shirt accompanied the tweet. "There are so many examples of poorly timed, inappropriate, or just plain dumb social media posts," says SEER Interactive's Oliver. "But PUMA's tweet took the cake. I'm all for capitalizing on current events, but cannibalism? It's great to be clever and find new ways to connect your brand to socially-relevant topics, but if you're reaching too far for that connection, it can seem insensitive."

  • L'Oreal and a Dead Gazelle Speaking of this summer's World Cup: A Belgian teenager, Axelle Despiegelaere, landed a social media campaign with L'Oreal after she was seen cheerleading at the games on international TV stations. The cosmetics firm quickly dropped her after she posted a photo on her Facebook page. In the photo, Despiegelaere posed next to a dead gazelle she'd shot. The caption: "Hunting is not a matter of life or death. It's much more important than that…this was about 1 year ago...ready to hunt Americans today haha." "Things you may deem funny or appropriate at the moment may actually turn out the opposite in just a few hours," wrote Clayton Wood on Clickfire. With social media, "it's not too hard to screw up a good opportunity."

  • The New York Mets' #IamAMetsFanBecause Campaign The New York Mets baseball club launched its #IamAMetsFanBecause hashtag campaign in September 2014. At that point in the MLB season, the Mets were 15.5 games behind in the division standings. You know where this story is going. The Mets "asked the public to share" their thoughts about the team, "and they weren't truly prepared for the answers," says Oliver of SEER Interactive. "I think the Mets' Twitter campaign was worse than the NYPD campaign." When you're down 15.5 games, she says, it's not a good idea to start a social campaign "that turns over control to fans, who likely aren't all too thrilled with the current state of affairs."

  • Live Tweeting HMV Layoffs Entertainment company HMV hit hard times nearly two years ago, and it announced the firing of 190 workers. An employee used the company's Twitter account to protest, calling the layoffs "a mass execution" of "loyal employees who love the brand." HMV regained control of its Twitter account and subsequently deleted the objectionable tweets, but not before the story hit the news and a Channel 4 News correspondent in Britain did a screen grab of some of the tweets. The lesson learned: "Know who has access to your social media account at all times, especially if personnel changes are coming up," writes Paisley Hansen, a SocialMediaToday.com contributor. "Without proper policing of your social media channels, you could have a messy situation on your hands."

  • KFC's 'Pit Bull Disaster' In April 2014, a young girl was mauled by pit bulls and suffered significant damage. Two months later, her family's Facebook page reported that they were asked to leave a KFC in Jackson, Miss., because the girl's bandaged face frightened customers. The family vowed never to patronize KFC again. The story went viral. KFC spent several days replying to angry Twitter and Facebook posts — one of which included pictures of Nazis. When an industry giant is faced with a social media "crapstorm," it can distance itself from the situation with apologies, or it can use the opportunity "to be a little bit awesome," wrote Mary Elizabeth Williams, in Salon. In June 2014, "KFC chose the latter" by donating $30,000 towards the child's medical bills.

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