Nothing gets a social media hate fest going faster than a company or organization taking a political stance, regardless of whether it was intentional or not. As we all know, an issue that is particularly divisive is that of gay rights. This topic is getting a lot of heat at the moment due to the upcoming Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia, which is awash in anti-gay laws and bitter human rights protests.

Recently, both Coke and McDonald’s social media marketing came under fire on Twitter for sponsoring the Sochi games. McDonald’s took the heat first by launching their #CheersToSochi campaign, which was aimed to generate well wishes for the athletes.

coke and mcdonalds social media

As you might imagine, the response was not great:

coke and mcdonalds social media

coke and mcdonalds social media

After just a day on Twitter, the hashtag had been commandeered by LGBT activists and McDonald’s threw in the towel.

Coke had the next to misstep. The company had created a name and phrase generator site that placed your words on the image of a Coke can, which could then be shared on Facebook. Sounds innocent enough, however, the word “Gay” was not accepted while the word “Straight” was.

These images from America Blog show the generator in action:

coke and mcdonalds social media


Again, activist groups took to social media to show their outrage.

As you can see, social media can make a brand vulnerable to campaign steamrolling, especially if it’s tied to a controversial event like the Sochi Olympics. Marketers were not prepared for the backlash and many brands that are sponsoring the games have been quiet on all media in the weeks leading up to the Olympics.

How to Avoid a Value-Sized Mistake
There are an innumerable amount of things that both Coke and McDonald’s could have done to avoid the crazy mess in which they placed themselves. Here are just a few:

1. Heed the advice of others: According to Buzzfeed, the Human Rights Campaign sent an open letter to the top 10 American sponsoring brands of the Sochi games in August 2013 that included a huge warning. “As the primary sponsors of the International Olympic Committee, your companies have an enormous stake in what billions of spectators see over those two weeks in February. Your logos and marketing will appear alongside every event, indelibly linking your brank to what happens in Sochi.” President Obama, along with several other world leaders have announced that they will not be attending the games because of concerns of Russia’s human rights record.

The Point: If you see a bunch of people running in the opposite direction, it might be a good idea to turn on your heels and follow suit. While many brands have chosen to sponsor the Olympic Games, they are doing so in a manner that celebrates diversity and freedom for all or are coming up with extremely clever ways to put a spin on their marketing.

Your goal as a social media marketer should be to become an excellent listener. Pay attention to what your followers and thought leaders are saying about current issues in order to avoid such awkward internet smack-downs.

2. Be prepared for anything: The nature of social media is just that: social. More than ever before, brands are actually engaging with their customers instead of just talking at them via advertisements, print or otherwise. There are many advantages to being on social media, however, it does make a company vulnerable to infiltration by some very unhappy followers. It is obvious that neither company was prepared for this type of backlash.

The Point: Plan, plan, plan and plan some more. A great practice for any social media marketer is to create a content calendar that maps out future posts and keeps you on task. Also, if you think anything you are about to post is questionable or could be offensive, ask someone.

3. You’re not invincible: Metaphorically speaking, McDonald’s kind of peaced-out without so much as a word about the #CheersToSochi blunder. Coke launched the same exact site in the US with the same straight/gay word issue. Do these giants really think they can just wish their problems away or simply ignore them?

The Point: Acknowledge your mistakes and publicly recognize it. It really does so much for your followers to know that you actually care about their thoughts and, honestly, their feedback is pretty damn priceless.

Whether you are large company sponsoring the Olympics or a mid-sized company trying to create some buzz on social media, a social media hate storm can happen to anyone. Being prepared for any occasion that may arise and always keeping your followers in mind will keep you in their good graces and keep you from having to clean up a PR nightmare.

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