How you can make the most out of social media disasters

Jeep's Twitter page was hacked and taken over by Cadillac brandingWhen it comes to recent social media disasters, there are no shortage of examples.

Back in November, I did a fairly comprehensive run through of the social media fails in 2012, which included a prestigious roll call of brands such as Waitrose, McDonalds, Gap and Qantas – these household names, and many more, had all suffered from a social media fail.

So far in 2013, we’ve seen less ill advised campaigns, but more high profile disasters of a different kind. This week, the Burger King Twitter account was hacked by an unknown internet vigilante who posted a series of controversial (and clearly inaccurate) tweets, including one that stated the fast food giant had been bought by its main rival, McDonalds. The hackers, obviously pleased with the furore they had caused, then moved swiftly on to Jeep’s Twitter account, which last night was displaying a Cadillac logo.

In a fairly similar recent incident, a Twitter hijacker claiming to be an axed HMV worker took over the music retailer’s Twitter account. The person in question was apparently tweeting live as the beleaguered retailer was letting many of its staff go, using the hashtag #hmvXFactorFiring.

So far, not so good. These brands, or the agencies running their accounts, have been criticised by the media, come under intense scrutiny from consumers and have been ridiculed by the industry as a whole. So how can they turn around these disasters and use them to their advantage?

Well, to start with, these public fails attract a lot of attention. Burger King woke up yesterday morning 30,000 followers richer than the day before. And while the attention may not necessarily be good at the moment, any dramatic increase in a social community always presents an opportunity to engage with and hold on to this new audience.

An important lesson for brands is to have a sense of humour. Yes, a hacked account is a serious business and obviously must be remedied quickly, and a badly managed campaign can be embarrassing at best, damaging to the brand at worst – but this doesn’t mean that companies should hide under the bed with their eyes closed until the criticism goes away.

Consumers and media alike are much more forgiving of a brand that’s willing to admit it’s made a mistake, and will appreciate a bit of self deprecation. Waitrose handled its #WaitroseReasons social media fail pretty well last year. It took the obvious mishap on the chin and showed some personality in its response. It certainly didn’t do the brand any long term damage and some even said the campaign was a secret success, which is pretty remarkable, all things considered.

So, while Burger King was fairly slow to react to the hack initially (though part of the blame here does lie with Twitter itself), how it handles it from here could mean the difference between turning a disaster into a success or just experiencing one of the most high profile fails of the year.

We haven’t seen the last of Twitter accounts being hacked, so brands should be taking every precaution they can to protect themselves, from ensuring their passwords are of maximum length and in as few hands as possible, to giving only easily revocable access to their accounts for their internal and external teams using third party management tools – and an accepted process surrounding all of this.

And for those considering a fake hack, yes MTV, we’re talking about you – don’t. Firstly, because consumers have already lost interest – Jeep’s hack attracted a lot less attention than Burger King’s – and secondly, and more importantly, because to use social media effectively, we need to work with consumers to build confidence, not shake it at a time when the perception of the reliability of the social media industry is hardly at an all time high.

Jeep's Twitter page was hacked and taken over by Cadillac branding

Jim Coleman is managing partner of We Are Social.