| Aug 2, 2016 | | 16 min read

Online Reputation Management Fails


To our amusement (and to our dismay), there are countless examples of online reputation management fails. Have you ever witnessed a company make an online reputation management blunder and cringe a little on their behalf? In life and in business, learning through others’ mistakes provides valuable lessons we can use so as to not repeat the same mistakes. Well, there are always a few stubborn folks who will have to do it the hard way and repeat the same mistake to learn, but for the rest of us, however, learning from these mistakes is a much less expensive (or detrimental) way to know what not to do to in order to avoid the same fate.

Online Reputation Management’s History: A Tale of Trial and Error

Since the world of digital marketing and social media are relatively new, and even newer to the business world, there have been a few brave souls who have tried something and failed. Where there is risk there is reward, right? But... also penalty (or shame, or embarrassment) if it doesn’t work out. How do you know if something works when it is a new field such as the social media scene? It has very much been an area of trial and error. And, as habits and tastes change in the digital arena (as they previously have done through print and traditional media), how can you keep interest piqued and stay ahead of the competition? Online was once a clean canvas with little clutter to captivate consumers’ attention. Alas, now it is the place where the new marketing clutter lives and where companies battle it out for the attention of viewers.

Much like the pioneers and voyagers exploring new land (well, land that was new to them anyways) and territories, the history of digital media is being shaped as we (digital marketers) break new ground. It is a very exciting time for the marketing and media industries, as digital media is replacing forms of traditional media on many fronts and companies must be concerned about their online reputation now more so than ever or suffer the consequences.   

Online Reputation Management: Tales of Fails (in no particular rank of fail or facepalms)

Lessons have more meaning with examples. So, we have “scraped” (get it? Internet joke. Okay, okay—scoured and surfed) for the very best examples of companies that have been made famous for their online reputation management fails that provide us all some teaching moments (or at least, moments that thoroughly entertain us). There have been so many of these fails, that this will likely become an ongoing segment so the entertainment, and.. ahem.. of course learnings, can continue. Knowing what not to do in the world of online reputation management and what a company should do to recover after an online reputation management snafu is an essential part of good customer service.

While a few companies on this list made some avoidable mistakes, we thank them nonetheless, so other companies now know to be more careful. This list is not in any particular order, however, we’d like to hear your opinions of the “order of fail.” Seriously, we’d love to hear how each fail ranks with you! Also, we shed light on some lessons learned and recommendations, because the point of this post is to be educational, right? We’d also love to hear how other digital agents and experts would handle these situations, or if you feel that the company did the right thing. Let’s hear it folks!

1. JPMorgan’s Online Reputation Management Fail: #AskJPM

JP Morgan’s Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

On November of 2013, JPMorgan Chase attempted to open up a Twitter Q&A with top executive Jimmy Lee to improve public relations amidst a series of events that had the company’s reputation less than sparkling. While questions were slow to start, JPMorgan Chase got more than they bargained for when they were asked questions regarding their recent legal problems (their fine from the financial crisis), as well as varying questions about their corporate social responsibility practices... as well as a barrage of insults. While there was a high number of responses, over 66% of the 80,000 tweets sent with the #AskJPM hashtag were negative (dailymail). Ouch. JPMorgan Chase cancelled the Q&A as a result and openly tweeted that the event was a bad idea.

JPMorgan’s Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

Quadruple facepalm

JPMorgan’s Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Overconfidence and unrealistic knowledge (or ignorance) of brand perception in the public eye
  • Little foresight into possible outcomes of the campaign
  • Lack of appropriateness of post amidst current events, tastes and popular opinion

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By JPMorgan:

Check yourself before you wreck yourself. While the idea of holding a Q&A shows an openness and effort towards transparency by the company, the company was not in a favorable position in terms of public opinion to open the floodgates for an open forum. Any PR expert knows not to put a politician or company head in front of the press without a plan (or plan b), and when facing a lot of negative questions, the safe play is to say “no comment.” The online arena is no different in PR, and the online reputation management lesson learned was that if doing a public Q&A session, make sure you know what the current public sentiment is about your company and how your company plans to handle the possibility of things going south.

JPMorgan Chase also learned, that while in person the number of questions can be somewhat controlled,  hundreds or thousands of people can submit their questions at the same time online (and they did in this instance). This also proved a very valuable lesson to know the current events and tastes of the public (and respect both) before going online (and opening your company’s reputation to the world stage). In this situation, a hybrid approach of more traditional PR first mixed in with strategic online reputation management practices would’ve worked better.

2. KitchenAid’s Online Reputation Management Fail: Personal Account Mix Up

KitchenAid’s Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

In October of 2012 during the presidential debate, KitchenAid USA’s Twitter account caught some fire as an offensive tweet about President Obama’s grandmother was posted on their Twitter account rather than the personal Twitter account of the staff member writing it. The offensive tweet was quickly deleted (not quickly enough—as there was enough time for screenshots and offense to be taken) and several apology tweets were posted by their head of branding. The mistake was addressed quickly with some lashback from users saying they would no longer support the brand as their appliance provider of choice.

KitchenAid’s Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

One and a half facepalms

KitchenAid’s Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Regardless of what you post, make sure you are in the correct account
  • Double check your post/tweet after you post it for any errors (for example, posting/tweeting from the wrong account)

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By KitchenAid:

The damage here was mitigated due to the quick reaction by KitchenAid, and thus the rate of failure is lessened. Nevertheless, it serves as a great lesson of what happens when companies act quickly, apologize and take responsibility. By claiming responsibility with her name and title, Cynthia Soledad gave a human element to the account and error. This means that when customers were tweeting, they were lashing back at a person and not a faceless company. Since we are all human and make mistakes, adding the human element makes the incident easier to forgive. She also apologized to everyone involved (including the President himself) and ensured Twitter users that action was taken by the company. This proves that it is possible to recover brand image through proper online reputation management practices. Taking quick steps to rectify a problem can help to lessen the extent of damage that can occur.

3. NRA’s Online Reputation Management Fail: Beware of Current Events

NRA’s Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

While seemingly innocent, the timing was unfortunate, as the tweet was posted the same day as the tragic shooting in a theatre in Aurora, Colorado. While it was likely a pre-scheduled tweet, Twitter users found it in poor taste considering the tragedy the nation was experiencing. The tweet was posted in the early morning and was deleted shortly after noon. Later in the day, the entire Twitter account was deleted. Media outlets alleged the NRA’s PR contact claimed to not even know of the tweet’s existence.

NRA’s Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

Triple facepalm

NRA’s Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Lack of appropriateness of post amidst current event and social climate
  • Pre-scheduling tweets without re-checking them incase of changes in the future
  • Not reacting quickly
  • Failing to accept responsibility and apologize

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By the NRA:

Online reputation management experts may argue to either delete the tweet or keep it posted and hold yourself accountable. While the first lesson here would be to stay attuned to what is going on in current events, the second lesson is to double check, or even triple check, (especially if the brand has any potential affiliation or controversy with the events) that the outgoing posts are appropriate in the context of these events. As we have learned from the successes of the Kitchenaid fail above, if it has already gone out, brands must act quickly! Respond quickly! The American Rifleman account could’ve tweeted that they are sorry for the tweet given the context.

The American Rifleman account could have also been honest that this was a pre-scheduled tweet and at the time, they had no knowledge of the events that had unfolded. Additionally, they could  have sent their thoughts to all of the victims and families involved (you get where we’re going here). Not accepting responsibility nor apologizing for the misdeed only makes the company look like they do not know what is going on (so another lesson here is to share a social media calendar with all employees, or ones that should know what’s on it). Deleting the account entirely doesn’t make up for the online reputation management damage caused—even though the tweet (and account) was deleted, there are still screenshots of it floating around, and many eyes have already seen it (and reacted).

4. American Airlines’ Online Reputation Management Fail: Automated Mishap

American Airlines’ Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

On February of 2013, American Airlines sent an automatic reply tweet to a disgruntled customer. The trouble here is that American Airlines responded with a “thank you for your support” message rather than offering an apology, only adding insult to injury and making it painfully obvious the company uses automated tweets.

American Airlines’ Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

Extreme facepalm

American Airlines’ Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Beware of automated response tweets. Human edited responses and tweets are better and more accurate than technology (at this point).

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By American Airlines:

While it is good to respond to customers—especially angry customers—automating responses is not the way to go. As this online reputation management case of fail shows, the company looks foolish and the customer is angry, for all of the internet world to see. If a business wouldn’t automate the customer service experience in person, why would they do so online? This only fuels consumer rage and the opportunity for bad word of mouth to spread. Power has shifted to consumers now, and companies must do everything they can to win their consumers back (or at least not enrage them to speak out online for the world to see).

5. Microsoft’s Online Reputation Management Fail: Tay, Tay, Tay

Microsoft’s Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

On March 23 2016, Microsoft Unveiled Tay, the Twitter bot that Microsoft described as an experiment to understand conversation. Apparently, the more that Tay chats, the smarter it gets as it learns to engage people through conversation. Unfortunately, it took less than 24 hours for things to, as Ron Burgundy would say, “escalate quickly.” Tay started out as pretty innocent and was corrupted very quickly. While many tweets were pushed out by Tay, only the worst were heavily circulated. Whether Tay was repeating phrases or was unprompted from users, Tay tweeted some very, very uncool things. Like an 80s movie with AI and robots getting corrupted, Tay only fuels the stereotype that technology can take a turn for the worst. As a result, Microsoft started deleting some of Tay’s offensive tweets the next day, officially apologized on their blog, and suspended the project.

Microsoft’s Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

Two facepalms for humanity, two for AI

Microsoft’s Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Again, beware of automated tweets. Human edited responses and tweets are better and more accurate than technology (at this point)
  • Always apologize and react quickly
  • If it’s really bad, it’s a good idea to delete it so as to not scar others

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By Microsoft’s and Tay

Did Microsoft not plan for this to happen or have a safeguard in place? Before releasing something, you hope that Microsoft would’ve tested Tay for corruption and negativity (to put it gently). Microsoft may have let Tay go for a little long before suspending it, but the fact that the company reacted fairly quickly, apologized and made clear the result of the offense helped calm down the public. The disappointment for those who can’t wait for the progress of robots and AI continues.

6. Nestle’s Online Reputation Management Fail: Are You Talking to Me?

Nestle’s Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

Back in early 2010, Greenpeace started a web video campaign aimed at Nestle. Greenpeace supporters (who were encouraged by Greenpeace) changed their profile pics to anti-Nestle slogans. Users were also writing on Nestle’s Facebook fan page. Nestle wrote to users asking them to not use any version of their logo (due to copyright infringement), otherwise their comments would be deleted. Comments made by the page administrator only poured more fuel on the online reputation management fail fire, and cue the angry online mob effect. The Nestle rep apologized for snapping back at fans, including the comment regarding deleting profile photos with the logo.

Nestle’s Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

Epic facepalm and a jaw drop

Nestle’s Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Panicking and trying to control an angry mob
  • Telling people what to do or what not to do when they are already angry
  • Trying to take on a social media disaster without a proper plan of action

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By Nestle:

Do not fight with consumers, whether you personally believe you are right or not. People will get offended and everyone is entitled to their own feelings… arguing with people about their feelings, or telling them to do something when they are already mad at you, is not a good idea. As a child, did you ever try to tell your mom what to do after she got mad at you? Not a good idea. Never ends well. Here, Nestle should be on top of social media posts quickly and have had a plan of action for possible backlash (I bet Nestle has a plan of action just incase this sort of thing should ever happen again). When a mob ensues, it is best to be active and apologize before the mob gets more angry. You should always be authentic and make sure customers know they are being heard.

7. Kenneth Cole’s Online Reputation Management Fail: #Cairo

Kenneth Cole’s Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

In February 2011 amidst the protests held in Cairo, Egypt, Kenneth Cole made light of the serious events taking place. This is what is referred to in the online reputation management community as hashtag jacking. This practice can be seen as offensive and in poor taste. This is especially so when a company jacks the hashtag of a serious event or cause in order to self promote. This hashtag jacking in particular was made famous from the fact that it angered people on an international scale. An apology tweet was issued, however, it was a semi apology and stated that they weren’t trying to make light of the situation. Kenneth Cole later issued an official apology on his Facebook page and removed the tweet.

Kenneth Cole’s Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

Triple facepalm

Kenneth Cole’s Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Hashtag jacking a serious event or cause for opportunistic means
  • Hoping the masses will be accepting of making light of a serious event 
  • Half apologizing and not taking full responsibility initially

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By Kenneth Cole:

Usually it is best to say to double check the context of a hashtag before using it. Unfortunately, the context was known here. Making light of events and hashtag jacking is not cool. Humor is hard for even comedians to master, and since everyone has a different sense of humor, it is best to approach it carefully. On that note, humor around a serious event is something that the pros, for the most part, even tread lightly on (unless it is what they are famous for). While comedians can bounce back from guffaws, it is harder for brands. Kenneth Cole was right to apologize, but half apologizing doesn’t help rectify the situation. It is better to immediately claim full responsibility and apologize.

8. DiGiorno’s Online Reputation Management Fail: #WhyIStayed

DiGiorno’s Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

Speaking of hashtag jacking, In September of 2014, DiGiorno hashtag jacked #WhyIStayed. This hashtag was created in response to Janay Palmer, the then fiancee of Ray Rice. She was questioned as to why she would marry someone who knocked her unconscious. DiGiorno didn’t look into the context of the post before tweeting with the hashtag about pizza. The tweet was deleted within minutes as it was seen to be in poor taste. The brand apologized and admitted that they didn't look before posting. The brand went so far as to writing a personalized apology to each Twitter user.

DiGiorno’s Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

One giant facepalm

DiGiorno’s Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Hashtag jacking a serious event or cause for opportunistic means
  • Not checking what the hashtag was about before posting

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By DiGiorno:

While the company made an error by not checking what the tweet was about, this signifies how damaging hashtag jacking can be to a brand. The online reputation management recovery efforts here were effective, as the company accepted the blame and went so far as to tweet every single person that replied with a heartfelt apology. The company also acted quickly and swiftly and accepted full responsibility.

9. Bud Lights’s Online Reputation Management Fail: #UpForWhatever

Bud Light’s Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

What’s worse than hashtag jacking a serious cause or event? Creating a hashtag with meanings that conjure images of traumatic events. In 2015, Bud Light was under fire for creating the hashtag #Upforwhatever underneath the slogan “the perfect beer for removing “no” from your vocabulary for the night.” The brand was accused of promoting date rape culture and an online uproar ensued. The company apologized on its website, and the company’s vice president Alexander Lambrecht said that the slogan and hashtag would no longer be used in their campaign. The company admitted regret and that they would never condone such behavior. What makes this story worse is that the company was under fire for a St. Patrick’s day tweet with the hashtag that implied it was okay to pinch people who weren’t #UpForWhatever.

Bud Light’s Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

Eternal facepalms and multiple head shakes

Bud Light’s Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Trying to create a hashtag with not understanding its meaning or perception
  • Using the hashtag again, even though the online community didn’t take it well the first time
  • Printing the hashtag mistake on all of your company’s products

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By Bud Light:

While it wasn’t bad enough that the company was under fire for previously tweeting the hashtag on St. Patrick’s day, the company went ahead with the campaign despite the previous uproar on Twitter. The company could’ve consumer tested the hashtag before printing it on all of their beers (especially if not taken well before). When it comes to online reputation management recovery, the company did post an apology on their website and take accountability in a timely fashion. It’s safe to say Bud Light indeed missed the mark on their messaging, unless that mark was trying to offend people.

10. ESPN Online Reputation Management Fail: The Case of the Unfortunate Link

ESPN Online Reputation Management Fail Tale:

On January 2015, a recruiting analyst for ESPN by the name of Gerry Hamilton attempted to post a tweet about football recruit Roquan Smith with a highlight video. Instead, Hamilton accidentally posted a link to a pornographic video to his 15,000 or so followers (Daily Mail). While the tweet was deleted within minutes, screenshots of it were already going around the internet. Another tweet was posted later, this time with the correct link.

Hamilton did not comment on the error, but to make matters worse, the adult video site reached out to Hamilton. It seems they could not resist poking fun at him for his online reputation management fail. Media outlets reported that ESPN was not available to comment about the situation and no public apology by Hamilton was reported either. While users tweeted their anger, it appears that no online reputation management action was taken, and it was a sweep it under the rug kind of approach. There was no evidence to suggest that Hamilton was penalized for the error. Hamilton has gained more followers since the ordeal, as he now has over 26,000 to date.

ESPN’s Online Reputation Management Fail Scale Level:

All the facepalms

ESPN’s Online Reputation Management Areas of Fail:

  • Please, please, please double check your links after inserting them
  • Double check before you post
  • Look at your post after you post
  • Take accountability
  • Apologize for your actions and for offending anyone

Online Reputation Management Lesson Brought to You By ESPN:

It seems that deleting the tweet in this case was probably for the best. Unfortunately, with this online reputation management debacle, Hamilton and ESPN did not take accountability. Also, there was no apology for offending those who had seen the tweet. Hamilton was not reprimanded for his actions, so this was apparently a forgiven offense. Gaffes such as this are a textbook example of why double checking links after inserting them (as well as double checking posts) is essential. While neither party took the high road in online reputation management recovery, the most harm done is that this embarrassing error (that could have been easily avoided) will live on the internet forever. Ultimately ESPN’s approach of sweeping everything under the rug left a sour taste in users’ mouths. 

Online Reputation Management Recovery: What Would You Do?

Alright, we’ve shared our thoughts on how these brands should’ve recovered (if they didn’t) from their online reputation management fails. Now we want to hear what you think. How would you advise your clients, or how would you conduct your online reputation management efforts after these events? Which one of these were the top online reputation management faux pas in your mind?

About the Author

Heidi Abramyk is what some would call a content-a-holic. She is among the select breed that finds the subject of local SEO and business listing citations absolutely fascinating. Heidi enjoys words (especially the best ones), designing (in every form but hand drawing) and formulating content strategies to take over the digital marketing world.

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