It’s a pretty open secret at this point that social media has revolutionized nearly every industry. Some 3.5 billion people around the world—a full 45% of the world’s population—are routine social media users; in some regions, like Eastern Asia and North America, this figure hits 70%. The average user spends one-seventh of their waking day on social media platforms—meaning that knowing how to leverage this brave new world is essential for any brand.

Nowhere is this more essential than when a brand is trying to work its way out of a crisis. In some cases, of course, social media may actually exacerbate a company’s plight—think Microsoft’s infamous chatbot which quickly began repeating racist and sexist statements after the company released it on Twitter. In most situations, however, brands in hot water are increasingly trying to use social media as a fire extinguisher.

Sotheby’s: from selling diamond-encrusted watches to selling itself as fresh and authentic

Famous auction house Sotheby’s has faced its fair share of reputational challenges in recent years. Just last year, the high-profile shredding of a Banksy work right at the moment of sale prompted suspicions that the auction house had been in on the act. The stunt certainly garnered a lot of publicity, but put the brand in the awkward position of either having to suggest that its security systems weren’t up to snuff—or that it had allowed its clients to bid on something which it knew would be destroyed, from which its credibility might never recover.

Most recently, a Manhattan federal judge ruled that Sotheby’s will have to face a $380 million lawsuit alleging that the auction house helped Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier swindle his long-time client out of more than a billion dollars. According to the suit, Yves Bouvier fabricated negotiations and artificially inflated prices in order to pocket massive margins; the firm’s purported role in the fraud was to lend credibility to the valuations Bouvier passed to his client.

The judge also released a cache of documents which Sotheby’s had fought to keep confidential—which paint a picture of a cosy relationship between company executives and art dealers, like Yves Bouvier, with wealthy clients. Over a period of years, Yves Bouvier and Sotheby’s executive Samuel Valette emailed back and forth, conferring on appraisals, descriptions and sales of artworks. The correspondence only seems to confirm what art world insiders have long suspected about the big auction houses: that many deals take place behind closed doors, with bidding serving as theatrical dressing—“part of a game with insider rules”.

The auction house has turned to social media to refute these allegations of opacity and the suggestion that the brand is not much less stuffy and inaccessible as when it pioneered the black-tie “event” auction in 1958. The auction house has built a carefully-curated Instagram account with over a million followers, which Sotheby’s communications director admitted is intended to “[peel] back the curtain of an elite world and [introduce] it to the masses”.

The account highlights auctions, such as the upcoming sale of rare sneakers—including those from Back to the Future Part II—believed to have broad appeal, in order to prove that “you don’t need $1 million to shop at Sotheby’s.” The account further taps into pop culture phenomena like the James Bond film franchise or events from Easter to Pride.

Whether this will be enough to rejuvenate the auction house’s reputation—especially as its upcoming return to private ownership has raised fresh concerns over transparency—remains to be seen.

Elon Musk and Tesla: Troubled Silicon Valley darling banks on “absolute unit”

Tesla has had a rollercoaster run—one which has been paralleled by its founder and CEO, Elon Musk. The company went from making widely-available electric vehicles feasible and seeing its stock soaring more than 2000% since its 2010 IPO to being mired in such severe production delays that the carmaker was reportedly mere weeks away from collapsing.

Both Wall Street’s and customers’ confidence has evidently been shaken—and Musk’s increasingly erratic behaviour throughout 2018 didn’t help matters. In addition to apparently smoking marijuana live during a media appearance, the CEO bizarrely accused Vernon Unsworth—a diver who helped rescue the Thai boys’ soccer team which was trapped in a cave last July—of being a paedophile.

Musk’s most serious Twitter gaffe, however, came in August 2018, when he Tweeted: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured”. That same day, Tesla stock surged 12% to $379 a share. There was a small problem, however: funding had not, in fact, been secured, and Musk had only opened discussions with Tesla’s board about taking the auto manufacturer private the week before.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) promptly sued Musk for securities fraud, arguing that he had artificially inflated the company’s stock market value. Musk paid a $20 million fine and agreed to have any Tweets about Tesla checked by lawyers—an agreement he’s had trouble following.

Musk has seemingly decided to turn social media from his Achilles’ heel into a strength, however. Tesla’s new social media manager as of this month is Adam Koszary, who made the Museum of English Rural Life’s Twitter account go viral last year with a vintage photo of a sheep and the caption “Look at this absolute unit”.

Both Tesla’s corporate social media accounts and Musk’s personal accounts have eschewed controversy in recent weeks, while one meme Musk shared garnered 275,000 likes in less than a day—suggesting that the brand has finally hit on the right social media strategy to carry it through rocky times.

KFC: Cheeky response to being a chicken restaurant without chicken

Sotheby’s and Tesla’s attempts to turn misfortune into social media gold are still in their early stages, but some brands have already executed a masterclass in how to mix humility and humor to convert their crisis into social media gold.

KFC is one particularly notable example—the chicken chain was forced to close 646 out of its 900 outlets in the UK in April 2018 after a switch in delivery companies led to a poultry shortage. Early on in the crisis, the fast-food restaurant’s social media channels were swamped with criticism from disappointed customers. By not only recognizing the importance of responding extremely quickly to these negative messages but by co-opting their tone. Since many customers were posting memes about the chicken crisis, KFC responded in kind—even sharing a version of its iconic chicken bucket reading “FCK” instead of KFC, which quickly went viral.

KFC’s brand image not only recovered to its pre-crisis levels but actually improved on them—the golden example of how social media can be weaponized to mitigate reputational trouble.