How to Avoid Embarrassing Yourself With Social Media Fails

By: on April 18, 2016

Social media platforms are a great way to reach a wide audience and boost engagement, but they can present many pitfalls. Information spreads fast on social media, which means blunders can easily result in PR nightmares.

Social media marketing newbies might hold back for fear of making a mistake, while others may charge forward without knowing how easy it is to foul things up. Both stances can impact your social media marketing goals.

To get you started on the right foot, we’ll explain why and how social media fails occur, and how to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

(Click on a link below to jump to that section.)

Why Social Media Fails Happen

Next Steps

Why Social Media Fails Happen

Social media fails come in all shapes and sizes, from mildly irritating to particularly offensive—and there’s no one reason they happen.

That said, there are a few recurring mistakes companies make that lead to embarrassment on social media.

Here are seven common mistakes to watch out for:

1. Automation Gone Wrong

Scheduling tools and automated posting features are great for building a large social media presence with minimal effort. But social media marketing isn’t something that runs entirely on autopilot.

When too much is automated, you run the risk of broadcasting the same message across all channels and looking like a one-trick pony that only offers canned responses. This can lead to strangely flat communication when a more personalized response is warranted.

Bank of America made this mistake when it automated its Twitter responses to customer service complaints:

Source: GetApp


Machines don’t always understand context, which means if you rely too much on automation, you run the risk of your software missing implications that could have been caught by the naked eye.

The New England Patriots learned this lesson when a Twitter campaign meant to highlight the NFL team’s one millionth follower backfired: Their system automatically overlaid the one-millionth follower’s Twitter handle across a picture of the team’s jersey and blasted it on social media.

Unfortunately, the acclaimed follower’s handle included the N-word.

Source: GetApp


To prevent this, don’t set and forget your auto-posts. Keep a watchful eye on them to catch when a real-time response from a real human might be a better option, or when something shouldn’t be reposted at all.

In general, complaints and negative feedback should always be met with more personalized responses, as should questions and inquiries.

2. Human Error

People aren’t perfect: We make spelling and grammatical errors and interpret things incorrectly. Sometimes, we lack the knowledge to comment appropriately and end up looking really derpy.

This was the case when an American Apparel employee mistook a picture of the 1986 Challenger explosion for fireworks (apparently they were too young to recognize the image for what it was) and posted it on the corporate Tumblr account.

Unsurprisingly, people weren’t happy, and American Apparel later apologized.

Source: Adweek


The solution? Do your research and use an approval system before you post by having one or more people review posts before they go live.

You can also use an automated approach here by setting up your system so that after one employee creates the post, it is automatically assigned to another to approve before the first can hit publish.

While you shouldn’t rely too heavily on automation, you should use tools that help you avoid spreading yourself too thin. Trying to manage everything manually is a surefire way of inviting human error. Software can help you catch small errors before they become big public embarrassments.

For example, social media marketing software provides many tools that help reduce the opportunity for mistakes and increase the number of eyes on a given piece of content (e.g., workflow automation and social media management functionality).

Marketing resource management software also often offers tools to help manage brand assets. This helps companies avoid inconsistencies in brand image and communication.

Above all, carefully vet the people you hire to manage your social media accounts and make sure they have the appropriate knowledge and training to act as the voice of your brand.

3. Disgruntled Employees

Ex-employees sometimes feel the urge to retaliate in extremely public ways. This happened to HMV, a British entertainment retailing company, when staff members used the company’s Twitter feed to share that they were being fired en-masse.

Source: The Drum


The lesson? Change your passwords when someone leaves, and definitely change it before someone walks out the door if you suspect there’s a chance they’ll want to go public with sensitive information.

You should also consider using HR software to help streamline the termination process. Some of these solutions offer ways to track everything that needs to be done when someone leaves the company to tie up loose ends.

Changing the passwords (or blocking ex-employee access) for all company accounts should be at the top of that list of critical to-dos.

4. Thoughtless Piggybacking

Piggybacking on top of controversial, newsworthy topics is a common social media marketing strategy. When news is trending, it can reach a wide audience, which means savvy newsjacking can work in a company’s favor.

Other times, it’s downright disastrous.

In 2015, for example, Starbucks launched their #RaceTogether Twitter campaign following the killings of unarmed teenagers Michael Brown and Eric Garner by the police and subsequent civil unrest.

While the campaign was intended to spark a national dialogue about race between Starbucks employees and customers, it backfired horrendously.

Twitter users questioned why Starbucks, a company with a disproportionate number of white executives, felt empowered to spearhead this particular conversation.


The campaign was halted a week later after an explosion of negative reactions, and many Starbucks executives even deleted their Twitter accounts to escape personal attack.

Similarly, DiGiorno Pizza embarrassed itself by misunderstanding the #WhyIStayed hashtag, which was intended to facilitate a discussion about domestic violence.

As a result, the company posted a message that came across as extremely insensitive to abuse victims and survivors.


You can avoid this type of situation by researching and understanding the context behind everything you intend to post. Be sure to do your homework and gauge public opinion on issues before leaping into the discussion about it.

Social media monitoring software is useful here, as it can inform both context and public sentiment. Social listening tools scan social networks for words, phrases and brand mentions.

Above all, make sure that whatever news you’re piggybacking on aligns with your brand and that it’s a conversation you can legitimately add value to.

Take the time to evaluate whether you’re really the right (or best) voice to speak on an issue. It may be that there are other ways to support causes your company cares about.

If you’re using automation, delay auto-schedules in times of crisis.

Epicurious learned the hard way: The company had some type of automation in place to look for trending keywords and combine them with food-related messages to tweet out automatically.

Unfortunately, this resulted in two wildly inappropriate tweets after the Boston Marathon bombing—a great example of accidental, cringe-worthy piggybacking:

Source: Forbes


5. That Joke’s Not Funny

Things aren’t always funny to everyone. What one of your employees thinks is clever might actually ruffle some feathers.

For example, in 2013, The Onion, a satirical newspaper, poked fun at Quvenzhane Wallis, a then-nine-year-old actress who just happened to be the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Oscar.

Source: The Wire


While The Onion meant to take a jab at our celeb-obsessed culture, many felt that targeting a child was inappropriate.

The tweet was taken down after about an hour after receiving many angry comments from followers. Many of those came from social media influencers, who made it clear they’d chosen their words poorly.

All it takes is one offended social media user to catalyze widespread dissent, and the situation can become compounded when social media influencers chime in.

To avoid this, craft a social media policy for your employees. Clearly outline the values of your company and agree ahead of time what topics are off limits. This sets clear expectations around how your employees should represent the business on social media and helps keep everyone accountable.

Also consider gut-checking all social media content with a “devil’s advocate” process: Ask yourself how each piece of content might be misconstrued or misinterpreted before posting.

6. Roast, Anyone?

While open-ended conversations on social media can boost engagement with your brand, it’s important to consider what kind of conversation (and engagement) you’re inviting.

Many companies fail to consider the possibility of negative feedback and thus end up with more than they bargained for.

When the New York Police Department encouraged New Yorkers to share stories of their interactions with their police officers via the #myNYPD hashtag, they expected feel-good posts that would positively promote their department.

Instead, many used the #myNYPD hashtag to share photos depicting police brutality.


To prevent this, evaluate public sentiment about your organization or brand before you open yourself up to questions. You can use social media monitoring software to do this.

If you know (or learn) that there’s a large group of followers who might jump at the opportunity to slam you, don’t start an open-ended forum. That would be like walking into a room full of people that hate you and suggesting they start a roast.

If you’re looking to showcase positive interactions with customers, consider sharing only vetted case stories, rather than making an open call for comments. This gives you more control over what’s eventually posted.

That said, if your company is facing serious allegations, you might want to forgo those types of stories altogether. Otherwise, you run the risk of looking like you’re using social media to present a one-sided story. Focus on rebuilding your brand image another way.

7. Hijacking and Leaks

While not technically a blunder, it is a company’s responsibility to mitigate hacking by keeping private information private and social media accounts secure.

If you don’t take steps to prevent outside parties from hijacking your social media account or insiders from leaking sensitive information, you leave yourself wide open for attack—and potentially some very negative consequences.

In 2013, for example, Burger King’s Twitter account was hacked. The account name was changed to McDonald’s and a post on the account stated that the franchise had been sold to the rival company.

This was followed by a string of fake tweets containing racial slurs, obscenities and drug references.


Cleaning up the aftermath of a hack will be a public affair. You might be left explaining to your social media followers why your security measures failed—or worse, why you never had any in the first place.

What’s more, being hacked calls into question your proficiency as an organization and your overall trustworthiness. This is potentially just as embarrassing as every other blunder on this list.

Many social media marketing systems let you grant employees access to your social accounts without disclosing sensitive account information to them, which can help prevent leaks from within.

Business security software can likewise help prevent outside parties from gaining access to your sensitive data, private information and software systems.

Also, be sure that you and your employees change your passwords often. If work email addresses are shared publicly, consider using non-work email addresses when signing up for social media accounts. Steps like these make your accounts harder to hack.

While the thought of making a major faux paux on social media might be gut-wrenching, there are ways to avoid embarrassing yourself. It is possible to execute an interesting, engaging social media marketing strategy that doesn’t offend or end in a disastrous scenario.

Knowing why blunders happen is the first step toward avoiding them. Having the right tools in place, and knowing how to use them wisely, is the rest of the equation. By taking these steps, you’ll be well on your way to mistake-free social media marketing.

Next Steps

Need help choosing the right social media marketing software? Here are some steps you can take to narrow down your options and get more information:

Email me at I’m available to help you start the software selection process, or to answer any additional questions you might have about social media marketing.

Check out detailed comparisons and reviews of popular social media marketing software.

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