Discover client recommended agencies

How do you solve a problem like... a social media backlash?

Will paid moderation help brands escape online opprobrium?

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

Last week's flurry of International Women’s Day-themed comms saw mixed results for brands. Burger King in particular scored an own goal with a Twitter post that clumsily attempted to discuss gender discrimination in the food world. Social media (and Twitter especially) can be a hostile place for advertisers who put a foot wrong.

Though the Home of the Whopper ended up apologising, new features recently added by Twitter, TikTok and Reddit may have helped them pre-emptively spike that backlash, with that platform now offering advertisers and creators the option to moderate user replies.

Could such controls be the answer for safety-conscious advertisers, or are there other ways to prevent a post from blowing up in a brand’s face?

How do you solve a problem like... a social media backlash?

DuBose Cole, head of strategy, VaynerMedia London

Every social media interaction between a brand and its audience has the potential to create a negative reaction, but it can also be an opportunity to learn and adapt. The best way to prevent and respond is to approach it with empathy and understanding - because it often signals a disconnect between content and an audiences’ need on a platform. Creating with this connection in mind should be a strategic principle and something that continues when a backlash occurs - guiding brands to understand why, respond and improve. You don’t solve backlash, you respond and learn from it.

Sam Bettis, social media director, Krow

Social media is brilliant for showing different points of view and there’s an argument that it’s right for Burger King to be challenged in this way. Burger King is a massive corporation and can cope with this kind of feedback, so doesn’t need ‘protecting’, per se.

But whoever created Burger King’s tweet is also being attacked, with loads of people demanding they be sacked and their marketing peers joining in the pile on. The issue of human safety on social media is huge, and platforms must work to protect people from this kind of abuse.

Raquel Rosenthal, chief executive officer, Digilant

Absolutely, advertisers are always going to want greater control. We've seen major brands pull advertising from social platforms like Facebook due to limited control over hate speech and the moderation of defamatory comments. In the last year, we've seen advancements in AI-powered moderation built by social platforms themselves, and while it's well-intentioned, it still has its flaws. I anticipate we’ll see an uptick of third-party tools and solutions offering comment moderation that will put more control in the hands of advertisers. Will it solve the moderation problem completely? We’ve yet to find out.

Chien-Wen Tong, head of client development, Wavemaker

What happened last week with Burger King was an exception – by now, most brands have figured out how to use social media with thoughtfulness and consideration of the audience. Social platforms are taking more responsibility for the environment they own, and extending moderation to brand owners is one effort.

However, most brands already use their social presence responsibly and cautiously, and so the platforms handing over moderation control should be taken with a grain of salt. It may convince more brands to spend more time and money on the social platforms under the guise of control. However by shifting moderation responsibility to brands, it further alleviates the platforms from the responsibility for what happens in their space.

Camilla Yates, strategy director, Elvis

A shitstorm caused by insensitive or badly executed creative cannot be fixed by moderation settings. It’s likely that even if Burger King had used Twitter’s new functionality, the tweet would still have gone viral outside of the brand's own post. The better solution is to think crisis management from the get-go. Campaigns should always be seen through strategic, creative, and crisis lenses - especially when the execution knowingly aims to cause a divide. This approach enables us to consider diverse perspectives and scenario plan to maximise positive visibility. When it all kicks off, you need a great social media manager, not a moderation tool.

Sebastian Redenz, head of paid social, Havas Media Group

While Twitter now offers brands the opportunity to moderate comments on the platform, managing a social media backlash is really all about three basic principles: respond, acknowledge and overcorrect – which is exactly the approach that Burger King took last week. Simply using the commenting function ignores these fundamental tenets of social media management. Brands have always had the opportunity to effectively moderate their own space, but whether they are successful with it hinges on their ability to understand what makes a crisis and how to navigate through it.

Sherawaye Hagger, client director, Bud Communications

A dream client would be one that creates bold campaigns. When a household brand takes a stand and it backfires, the results for the industry are detrimental. The danger is our clients become docile and stay away from social activism.

Social media has become the wild west from bot rage and fake news. There are no easy answers but we know the current status quo can’t exist. To solve it, we need to work with social platforms, to help brands self-regulate and take back some control. What this will look like no one knows, but we are leaning towards some form of moderation.

Markyle Rondon, social media coordinator, T3, a Material company

In every post and every line of copy written, advertisers assume the possibility that their work may not be accepted by the public in the way they intended or hoped. That inherent risk should drive agencies to create work that's tasteful, timely, bulletproof and ultimately caters to their audience above its shock value.

Backlash, though a hard pill to swallow, is an acknowledgement of a mistake – while platform level conversation moderating features may certainly limit the extent backlash can grow, it may be most healthy for our industry to hear that we've made a mistake when in fact we have.

Paul Kasamias, managing partner (Performance) at Starcom

Twitter’s reply moderation feature is a damage limitation tactic. It is effective, but not optimal. There is still a limit to how much control they are actually offering. If someone takes issue with your messaging, it takes under 10 seconds to still retweet with a comment, screenshot your post as an image, or just talk about your brand regardless.

We live in a trigger-happy society, which can leave a brand’s reputation in tatters particularly as posts can be amplified across multiple social platforms at scale and quickly. Risk-taking on the flipside, often garners the greatest reward on social platforms but brand should be prepared and carry out road-testing on smaller audiences to understand consumer mind-sets first, especially in present times.

Christina Miller, connections director, VMLY&R

The beauty of social media is that it’s a two-way dialogue, unlike TV and print ads. If you’re creating a piece of content to generate discussion, like Burger King was, limiting the type of discussion around that defeats the purpose unless the conversation is harmful to others.

So what do we do? Half of the problems brands run into could be resolved by a bit more research and understanding before they click the publish button—whether that’s the real meaning behind a meme or a statement that is completely off-tone. Burger King’s aim of helping female chefs further their careers is praise-worthy but it didn’t think about the reactions the initial click-bait message might invoke. All it can do now is learn from its mistakes, apologise and do better next time.

Andrew Mason, chief media officer, Digitas UK

Three steps could and should have been taken.

Test: Advertisers used to test commercials before they went live but less frequent in digital marketing today. Having a focus group to test the reactions will allow brands to measure responses and make adjustments.

Be prepared: If a company takes the risk, it needs to prepare ahead of time and decide upon a route out of trouble.

Control the situation: For advertisers, switching off comments could be safe despite possible consumer negativity. But as KFC showed in response to its 'new fries' done well, it can be effective. Undoubtedly, it forms a teachable moment for all brands.

Emily Knox, head of social and content, Tug

Early in my career, I was asked to set up social profiles for a brand, with all comments and posting features disabled. My response was: you want a website, not a social presence. I understand the trepidation from brands – the blowback on misjudged content can be painful. But the potential of social media lies in the conversations: the replies and the memes. If Weetabix had turned off comments on its infamous baked beans tweet, it wouldn’t have had the success it did. My advice to brand advertisers is to plan better, get diverse points of view on campaigns, and take part in the conversations you start.

Lynne Deason, head of creative excellence at Kantar

The Burger King backlash wouldn’t have been solved by more social media controls – restricting dialogue doesn’t stop people reacting negatively to content. This was a creative misstep.

The marketing team knew what it was trying to do, so that’s all it could see. Irony is challenging to land effectively. It can be too clunky or too nuanced. You need to give people obvious clues of your intent, i.e. signalling if something is meant to be tongue in cheek or that a twist is coming. The ad had no punctuation, typography or visual cues to guide readers beyond the literal meaning. The headline provokes such an instant, visceral reaction that in its print form people probably didn’t want to risk reading further.

Being provocative can work well; but offending people does not. Testing and researching how to bring these ideas to life in context is a no brainer. This was a potentially powerful idea, which misfired because of its creative execution.

Chloé Mathieu Phillips, strategy director, Europe, The Social Element

Burger King’s terrible ad campaign was a double-stacked failure. The delay in issuing the follow-up tweet combined with the fact that many simply did not click through to the whole thread (something the print ad avoided with the payoff in the copy next to the headline) made this a problem. It became a crisis because this is a topic we’ve never heard it talk about before, and this was not the 'way in'.

Brands need to work at building the credibility needed to tackle social issues. Brand crises tend to have one common denominator: consumers expecting brands to be better citizens. The solution is not controlling who engages with content in the face of a blowback, it’s about taking action outside of campaigns and proving day in and day out that there is human empathy behind the brand. Brands need to stand up on the issues that matter to them because consumers demand consistency and integrity. With or without comment control, it will find new ways to make their anger known if their expectations aren't matched.

Got opinions and a keyboard? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com to be included in future editions of this series.

By continuing to use The Drum, I accept the use of cookies as per The Drum's privacy policy