Social media started out as merely that – social. Online personal blogging was soon followed by Facebook and Twitter, and techno-geeks of the world had new and fun ways to communicate. Constantly evolving technology brought Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and other platforms to the playing field, and it became clear to public relations specialists that all of them had effective business applications as well.

Public relations had previously been limited to interaction with news sources, and one-way PR messaging – from the business to the consumer. Isolated instances of unhappy customer experiences were rarely heard of and quickly forgotten. The popularity of social media changed the way businesses interact with their audiences. Today, savvy public relations executives understand that a dialogue exists between themselves and their buyers. Social media platforms can be used to grow business and also interact directly with a customer base.

As businesses adjusted to this new dialogue, some brands learned this the hard way.


ChapStick found itself in the midst of what industry rag AdWeek called a “social media death spiral” that began fairly innocuously. In a print ad campaign called “Where Do Lost ChapSticks Go?” a jeans-clad young woman was presented digging through sofa cushions with her rear end in the air. A blogger took offense and wrote about it, her readers responding with critical Facebook comments.

While many found the ad inoffensive, ChapStick’s next steps – to delete negative comments without explanation – caused an outcry. Complaints of censorship quickly spread to Twitter, but ChapStick ignored all Tweets. Eventually the Facebook comments became too numerous to manage and the negativity surfaced. One week later, the brand issued its first corporate response, apologizing to customers who “felt like their posts were being deleted.” This non-apology further enraged consumers. Had ChapStick immediately and sincerely apologized, much of the damage could have been avoided.

United Airlines

United Airlines became the brunt of social media backlash when a disgruntled customer recorded a YouTube video, a catchy tune called “United Breaks Guitars.” Musician Dave Carroll was boarding a United plane when he noticed baggage handlers roughly throwing his band’s instruments around the tarmac. Upon landing he found that his $3,500 guitar was badly broken, requiring $1,200 for repair. Carroll sought restitution from United.

Nine months of buck-passing later, United Customer Service refused to repay Carroll. Interestingly, the musician warned the airline that if he wasn’t reimbursed, he planned to produce a song about his experience. United ignored him. Carroll followed through on his threat and the video quickly went viral, making national news. Over $12 million hits on YouTube and a flood of #unitedbreaksguitars Tweets later, United’s brand was severely damaged.  Days later, the company issued a weak apology and announced a $3,000 donation to a musical charity.

Once the social media storm began, United could have used several platforms to publicly apologize, and more quickly. Repaying Carroll or making a larger donation to his charity may have soothed an angry public. United also missed an opportunity to engage with its thousands of Facebook followers, whose unhappy comments were ignored.

BP Oil

Analysts agree that BP’s handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was a case study in dismal public relations. Aside from an apparent lack of concern about the victims of the oil rig fire and massive ecological damage, BP passed on opportunities to use social media to repair its image. Nearly one month after the spill, BP launched a social media campaign. Purchasing keywords like “oil spill” on Yahoo, Google and Bing, the company came under fire for publishing video of employees in clean clothing “working” on a suspiciously white beach.

What could BP have done instead? YouTube videos explaining the details of their clean-up efforts, or answering consumer questions in a Q&A format would have calmed a questioning public. The oil company belatedly established a Twitter account, but it was quickly overrun by a copycat account called BPGlobalPR . Satirical Tweets poking fun at the company’s lame attempts at PR went far further than BP’s messaging ever did.


In the summer of 2011, Netflix was a $1 billion movie-rental company. With no preamble, the company restructured its product bundling and increased pricing by 60%. Netflix announced this with one short post on its blog. Netflix customers were outraged; negative comments began flooding the company’s blog and Facebook page, and #dearnetflix was a trending topic on Twitter.

Some days later, the CEO responded with a blog post that clarified the new bundling strategy and announced the launch of a sister company called Qwikster. Customers were invited to reach out with questions via Twitter. Unfortunately, the @Qwikster Twitter account was owned by a foul-mouthed drug-abusing teenager. Not only did Netflix fail to check the availability of the account name, but it missed an opportunity to repair brand damage. At no time prior to the restructuring and during the outcry did Netflix communicate with its customers on any social media platform. Advance warning of the change and a hasty apology could have prevented the result: Qwikster was never launched, and Netflix lost 800,000 subscribers.

Kenneth Cole

Retail manufacturer Kenneth Cole famously enraged the Twitterverse when, during the Cairo uprisings of the Arab Spring, he tweeted the following:  ”Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our spring collection is now online.” Within hours the tweet was removed, and an apology by the CEO was published on Facebook and linked to Twitter. However, the public was not mollified and the brand was damaged.

What could KC have done to mitigate the damage? Many Egyptian customers involved in the Cairo uprisings had responded, and the company could have acknowledged their struggles by offering medical or financial assistance. While the swift apology was appreciated, the company could have responded via social media in a way that was more supportive of the Egyptian crisis.