Enter the social media space - at your peril

A recent Twitter marketing stunt by McDonald’s that backfired badly should serve as a cautionary tale to all companies – when…

A recent Twitter marketing stunt by McDonald's that backfired badly should serve as a cautionary tale to all companies – when it comes social media, the old rules no longer apply, writes JOHN HOLDEN

DESPITE ITS inherent benefits, many companies have learned the hard way that social media can be bad for business if approached badly.

Fast-food giant McDonald’s is an internationally recognised master of marketing, however, its recent social-media campaign is sure to become a textbook case of modern advertising failures.

In late January, the company’s US arm used Twitter to solicit positive customer stories, but their promotion quickly became inundated with jokes and criticisms by aggrieved tweeters (see panel below).


Within hours of launching the campaign, McDonald’s – a company with a marketing spend bigger than most companies’ annual revenues – had been forced into crisis management by a handful of Twitter users.

According to Damien Mulley, director of Mulley Communications and organiser of the Social Media Awards, the mistake that is often made by companies big and small is to apply traditional marketing rules to the social space.

“Social media is a long game and to play the long game you need to pre-plan, measure and make changes constantly, subtle or otherwise,” he said, adding that flashy campaign bursts do not work well in the medium.

For a company that does take this old-fashioned tack, it may be getting off lightly if its marketing attempt is simply overlooked by social-media users.

The real threat comes when users react against it, as there is no way to stop something once it gets started.

“The risks are, they [the company] get seen as blowhards or they do something silly and it gets magnified to more people than would ever be their customers,” says Mulley.

There are many reasons why organisations would want to enter the social-media space – often as a means to generate business. Others, however, do so in order to improve public perception.

Waterford City Council established a Facebook and Twitter page two years ago to deal with negative publicity resulting from some of its schemes, according to Conor Power, online services coordinator at the body.

“That said, there was a little of ‘let’s start using it and see what happens’,” he adds.

According to Power, the undertaking has been an overly positive one, though it has presented plenty of challenges too.

“There is ongoing trouble getting some users in certain areas to interact with it in terms of acknowledging receipt of criticism or complaints that come in via this channel, instead of more traditional methods,” he says.

“I think a lot of that is due to the fact that we would have had a few ‘gritty’ or mildly abusive messages, which people felt the need to maybe not respond to as legitimately as others.”

He said in some cases, the IT department also had to act as an intermediary, so that issues could be brought to the attention of staff that are less web-savvy.

To help deal with this the council’s IT team developed a detailed social-media policy, which guides staff on how to interact via the channels.

In instances of abuse, it tells staff not to engage or get pulled into a confrontation; at most, they should send one polite message to the source of the complaint advising them who to contact.

“It [the policy] states in minute detail what people can and cannot do on these channels, but makes an important distinction between using social media externally for promotional purposes and using it internally for personal use and information dissemination,” says Power.

According to Mulley, the lack of a strong social-media policy can a big risk for any organisation, particularly because staff will be active there even if the company itself is not.

“A loyal staff member getting angry on Twitter on a Saturday evening when someone badmouths the company can hurt the reputation of the company and the employee,” he says.

According to Stephen Beynon, group managing director of consumer and small business at Eircom, influencing the way staff behave on social-media platforms was an important part of its own policy development.

“Our policy centres on making sure that people behave responsibly and recognise that they are representing the company when they engage online,” he says, adding that it is also key to not be too formal either.

“You always have to remember that what you say is there forever, but the benefits of showing the human face of a business far outweigh the risks of being too careful and leaving your customers to fend for themselves.”

However, social media is not only about how a company and its staff behaves online; it is also about the personal use of social media within business hours.

Recently, Biz Stone, co-founder and creative director of Twitter, said he was uncomfortable with the idea of people tracking posts on his site all day and suggested doing so was bad for people’s health.

There is also a legitimate fear that such constant use of social media is bad for the employer too, as it takes away focus and time.

Waterford City Council’s approach has been to block staff use of social media unless it is for work purposes.

“We very much see social media as a positive,” says Power. If you think you can use it to promote your work, then you will be encouraged, but if you are playing Farmville during office hours, then forget it.”

A regular criticism of web-based communications platforms is that they also hinder people’s wider social skills, but Eircom’s Beynon rejects this.

“We’re not worried about this at all,” he says.

“It’s an environment where, if you resolve people’s problems well, then they become advocates for your business. The fact that they expressed their concern online means they are highly likely to talk about the outcome online.”

Beynon adds that Twitter has also proved to be an efficient way to deal with customer queries. Staff can deal with multiple cases at once and have more time to turn them around than one made over the phone.

According to Mulley, his job would be easier if more people were allowed use social media in work, and that trying to ban it is pointless anyway.

“The only way you can ban social media in an organisation now is to cut the internet cable and ban all mobile phones,” he says.

He feels that when companies end up with bad results from social media they often only have themselves – or an over-zealous “guru” – to blame.

Many also approach the issue with a bad set of motivators and expectations.

Mulley says the recession has led many to look in that direction as a cheap and easy solution to their needs, and they may be waiting for big results in very little time.

“Social media for some companies is the new-year fitness regime,” he said. “I think we in digital marketing need to highlight the actualities of running campaigns but also get them to spot the small weekly gains they’ll get.

“I think companies are now getting the holistic idea of this. It’s not the whizz-bang ‘do a Twitter launch and then finish up that project’,” he said.



In late January, McDonalds US division created the #McDStories hashtag, a code on Twitter to help link positive stories about the fast-food chain together.

Two hours after the launch, the company pulled its prominent – and paid-for – link on the twitter.com homepage as the stories flooding in took a negative turn. It was too late, however, and users proceeded to use the hashtag to criticise the chain, turning into what some dubbed a "bashtag".

McDonald's claimed afterwards that only a tiny minority of the tweets using the hashtag were negative. Even if that was true, the perception amongst users and the media was very different.


Popular social site reddit.com regularly features discussions by interesting or famous people where they allow the site's community to "AMA", or "ask me anything". The three-word term has weight too and there is an expectation that those making the offer are prepared to field any question that comes their way.

Hollywood star Woody Harrelson recently made such an offer on the site, but it quickly became clear that he was just there to talk about his new film. Users quickly lost patience and the name Woody Harrelson is now little more than a punchline for the millions who frequent the site.


While companies such as McDonald's might have failed when trying to create a popular hashtag on Twitter, others fail in their attempts to use what is already there.

When a popular hashtag is apparently relevant to what a company does, it often makes marketing sense for it to get involved in the surrounding discussion.

This time last year, however, fashion designer Kenneth Cole, broke a cardinal rule of Twitter – not to mention all the rules of decency – by jumping into an area completely unrelated to his marketing imperative. Attempting to capitalise on a trending topic, he tweeted "Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at bit.ly/KCairo - KC".

The message, sent from Cole's personal Twitter account, sparked a wave of criticism and controversy. Cole later apologised and removed the offending tweet.