As we all know social media provides a great opportunity for businesses to connect with the public, promote their products and services, and develop their brand image. However, as social media is still a young format, the whole endeavour provides plenty of opportunities for embarrassment and ridicule due to many brand’s lack of experience (or outright naivety). The reasons for social media back-firing for businesses tend to be linked around similar misunderstandings, such as: misjudging public opinion, badly-timed marketing campaigns, ‘rogue’ members of staff sending tasteless messages, and simple errors (such as accidentally sending private jokes to the company’s entire social media network). The end result never pretty, and it can be very difficult to reverse the damage.

2012 provided a catalogue of dreadful social media mistakes. Thankfully most of us get to learn from these, so take heed of the following errors and make sure your social media year is disaster free.

 1. McDonald’s

In January 2012, McDonald’s invited customers to use the Twitter hashtag #mcdstories to share their experiences of dining at the company’s restaurants. Whilst the fast food giant may have been hoping for a wealth of heart-warming tales of diner’s culinary experiences, they were instead faced with an army of Twitter users taking this opportunity to post comments criticising the franchise’s bad quality food, treatment of animals, and poor customer service. It was Super Size Me all over again.

 2. Celeb Boutique

Following the 2012 cinema shooting massacre in Aurora, Colorado, it was unsurprising that ‘Aurora’ began trending on Twitter. In a rather misjudged piece of social media bandwagon jumping British fashion site Celeb Boutique spotted a marketing opportunity and tweeted ‘#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress;).’

Many of Celeb Boutique’s 42,000 Twitter followers were shocked by the tastelessness of the message; the company apologised, claimed to have been unaware of the atrocity and deleted the tweet, but by that time the damage had already been done.

 3. NRA

Pro-gun lobbyists the National Rifle Association (NRA) also posted a poorly-timed tweet on the day of the Aurora massacre. American Rifleman, the Twitter account of an NRA affiliated journal, fired of the message ‘Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?’, just as America was learning of unfolding tragedy.

 4. Snickers

Snickers ran into trouble with the UK’s Office of Fair Trade (OFT) when the company was discovered to have been paying celebrities to tweet photos of themselves eating Snickers bars.

The story emerged when Twitter users began receiving out-of-character tweets from celebrities, such as Rio Ferdinand explaining that he knits to unwind after a match and Katie Price revealing her thoughts on European politics. The messages linked to pictures of the celebs eating a Snickers chocolate bar. The subsequent OFT investigation cleared Snickers, but the campaign may have worsened the relationship between the celebrities and their followers.

5. American Apparel

Companies using social media and big news stories for marketing can be a risky business, particularly if the news event has the potential to directly effect potential customers, as American Apparel learnt during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

The clothing brand sent out the message that customers in US states facing the approaching disaster could enjoy a 20% on their shopping in case they were ‘bored’ during the storm. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the most popular marketing campaign.

 6. Urban Outfitters and Gap

Other companies also tried to cash-in on Hurricane Sandy including Urban Outfitter who offered a special storm offer, tweeting ‘This storm blows (but free shipping doesn’t)! Today only…#ALLSOGGY.’

Gap also tried to get in on the disaster action, tweeting ‘All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of shopping today. How about you?.’ It’s unclear how these messages, and the storm itself, impacted on the companies’ sales but it is certain many potential shoppers found this opportunism pretty tasteless.

7. Susan Boyle

Combining words or phrases to make a single compound word to use in a Twitter hashtag has the potential for damaging results.

One such example of a hashtag failure was during the promotion of singing sensation Susan Boyle’s album Standing Ovation. Her management set up a Twitter account for her to answer questions about the album and came up with the hashtag #susanalbumparty, which is rife with double entendre.

8. KitchenAid

During the 2012 US presidential TV debates President Obama mentioned the passing of his grandmother. Soon after one of the team in charge of domestic appliance supplier KitchenAid’s Twitter account posted a message about the president and his grandma, tweeting ‘Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president’. #nbcpolitics’

The tweet was quickly removed and KitchenAid’s director of marketing issued an apology claiming one of company’s staff had accidentally posted the ‘joke’ publicly rather than privately. It was already too late – the tweet had gone viral.

 9. Waitrose – Going against the norm!

In a similar vein to McDonald’s invitation for customer comments, upmarket food retailer Waitrose created a Twitter campaign to connect with their customers. Someone on the supermarket’s marketing scheme came up with the idea to ask shoppers to complete the complete the sentence ‘I shop at Waitrose because…’ and tweet their reasons.

Predictably the replies Waitrose received ranged from gentle mocking to outright insulting, making fun of the company’s ‘posh’ image. Reasons given for shopping at the supermarket included: ‘because it makes me feel important and I absolutely detest being surrounded by poor people’, ‘ASDA Value Peacock feed isn’t as nice’, and ‘’I shop at Waitrose because I was once in the Holloway Rd branch and heard a dad say ‘Put the papaya down, Orlando!'”.

Waitrose took the responses in good humour, tweeting ‘Thanks again for all the #waitrosereasons tweets. We really did enjoy the genuine and funny replies. Thanks for making us smile.’ So, after initially appearing to be a PR disaster, the campaign is now considered a success as it drew in a lot of media attention. We doubt Waitrose will be repeating the idea any time soon, though.

 10. Starbucks

Towards the end of 2012 there was growing criticism of the practices of several large companies operating in the UK, particularly concerning the amount of tax paid by big businesses including Google, Amazon and Starbucks, who had been paying little or no corporation tax while generating huge profits through their UK operations. During the same period Starbucks ran a Christmas PR campaign where the coffee brand invited customers to send tweets to the hashtag #SpreadTheCheer. Resulting messages were then displayed on on a very large screen next to a winter ice skating rink at the Natural History Museum in London.

Disgruntled taxpayers took to Twitter to voice their opinions of the company’s business practices and the (evidently) unmoderated messages were displayed on the screen next to the skating rink, which Stabucks was sponsoring. As a result such gems as ‘If firms like Starbucks paid proper taxes, Museums wouldn’t have to prostitute themselves to advertisers’, ‘Tip the staff as Starbucks just cut their wages!’, ‘Tax Dodging MoFo’s’, amongst many more, were displayed in all their glory to Londoners.