HOW TO: Recover from a Social Media PR Disaster

This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.

You know that awful, “Did I leave the oven on?” pit-of-your-stomach feeling of dread at a possible screw up? Yeah, well now you can also get that feeling from social media. Nearly anyone managing more than one social profile has felt their stomach drop out when they think they accidentally posted something personal on a professional site. Did I click my avatar, or the company’s avatar? What did I just tweet?

On social media sites, a rash of Twitter accounts have tumbled into nasty PR disasters. There are the horror stories — Anthony Weiner tweeting out a picture of his boxer-briefed nether regions, Chrysler tweeting that no one in its hometown of Detroit could f-ing drive, the voice of Aflac’s mascot, Gilbert Gottfried, tweeting some questionable jokes immediately following the Japan earthquake and tsunami, or the Secret Service railing on Fox News.

Fortunately there are also some success cases of companies turning bad social media situations into something good. There are a lot of stories out there telling you how to prevent a slip-up, but slip-ups are inevitable, especially in the fast-paced, gut-reaction world of social media. Here, we take a look at how you can bounce back from a social media PR disaster.

So you screwed up, now what? What Counts as a PR Disaster?


Social media PR disasters comes in a range of fails and embarrassments. They can be simple slips, like posting a harmless link to a funny video or a personal message. These mistakes are easily rectified since they don’t really reflect poorly on the company besides showing its social media person can be a klutz.

There are also slips that can do serious damage to your brand. Of these, there are largely five main types: The inappropriate opinion, the insensitive statement, the early release, the false reward and the hack.

Inappropriate opinion is, predictably, when an opinion goes out over your social presence that is either inappropriate to your brand or to the format. This, as with most slips, can occur by accidentally posting or by posting something that should have been better edited or thought out ahead of time. For example, the Secret Service recently tweeted out: “Had to monitor Fox for a story. Can’t. Deal. With. The. Blathering.”

The insensitive statement can do a little more damage by reflecting the ethos of the brand. For example, Kenneth Cole tweeted this following the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at -KC”

The early release disaster is when a project, product or news brief is announced early. Depending on the timing, this can be disastrous or simply push your release schedule unexpectedly forward.

The false reward is when a company offers a deal or prize which they cannot actually deliver. For example, some companies in Canada recently got in trouble when they couldn’t honor all their deals from a group-buying site. It can also be as simple as accidentally adding an extra zero to a prize amount without noticing until too late.

The hack is both the most dangerous and the easiest to recover from. If someone breaks into your account you can tell your fans what happened, but your security has also been compromised and your accounts could be targeted again.


There are of course dozens of sub-mistakes that anyone could make. It helps to have some plan ahead of time, says Winston Bao Lord, president of Venga. “I think you can’t play out every scenario because you just don’t know, but you can plan out certain buckets to be prepared,” he says. “In every industry you can always identify potential PR disasters.”

Fortunately, the strategies for dealing with all of these slips are pretty similar: Be quick, be honest and try not to take yourself too seriously. The first two are simple understand but difficult to implement. “Anything that’s defined as a sort of misstep for a PR company should be seen as a disaster, or at least handled that way,” Lord says. “Especially things on Twitter, they spread like wildfire. If you wait an hour or two, that would be an eternity.”

You can make up for that speed by listening to your audience. “If you’re not participating in the conversation, you’re going to miss [the window of opportunity] if you say something that offends,” says Mariah Calagione, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s vice president.

Even harder is owning up to your mistakes. Rather than try to argue to your audience that the mistake wasn’t so bad or that you’re actually in the right, the best course is often humility. “It’s coming clean and ponying up to anything you might be responsible for,” Lord says.


The best way to recover from a PR disaster is to have a long history of excellence and professionalism on your business accounts. That’s good news or bad news, depending on how you look at. Companies should be honest when mistakes happen but also lean on a community of brand ambassadors to speak up for your brand, says Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council. “The key to stopping a PR disaster in the social media world is building an incredible brand ambassador network by doing very well by your customers over a long period of time,” Gerber says. “If something happens, you have a network of people who know that that’s not you.”

Gerber also says it’s important to show that there are people behind the brand trying to fix the situation: “At the end of the day, it’s about being brutally honest and humanizing the brand whenever possible,” Gerber says.


Mariah Calagione of Dogfish Head is no stranger to PR disaster. She played a positive role in turning around what could have been a huge hit to Red Cross’ social media presence. On February 15, the Red Cross sent out this tweet: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.”

Needless to say, that was a mistake.

Instead of blowing the tweet out of proportion, the Red Cross responded by saying the tweet was a mistake with “the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” The Red Cross didn’t panic but responded with humor in kind. They acknowledged the mistake immediately, apologized and even got in a message about driving safely.

That tweet, however, turned into a huge opportunity for Red Cross when Dogfish Head jumped on the hashtag. Calagione responded by asking Dogfish Head fans to donate to the Red Cross, providing a link and using the hashtag #gettngslizzerd. “It was me waking up and sitting on the cushion in my breakfast nook and saying that was kind of funny and retweeting,” says Calagione. “I managed all of [our social media] so there wasn’t anyone to discuss it with except maybe my two kids who were also eating breakfast with me.”

Part of that positive response was because the Red Cross didn’t overreact or make a bigger deal of the slip. Obviously this reaction changes with the severity of the mistake, but Red Cross, which deals with real disasters on a daily basis, could take the errant tweet in stride, says Calagione. “If you take yourself too seriously, you sort of come off as a douchebag,” she jokes, pointing out that the odds of a social media slip are a little higher for a beer company like Dogfish Head.

Ultimately the best advice is to be attentive to your audience and listen to your channels for both positive and negative feedback. It’s hard to tell the whole story in a post and it’s hard to talk to your entire audience in just one tweet, says Calagione. The important thing is to respond quickly and be accountable if you’ve legitimately messed up or offended part of your audience. That, and don’t tweet pictures of your genitals to anyone.

By Zachary Sniderman

Posted in
Scroll to Top