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Using a social media campaign to rehabilitate a corporate image is risky and unpredictable. Like others before it, SeaWorld discovered this to its cost last year when, beset by criticism for its treatment of killer whales, the theme park turned to social media.

The company had failed to think through the risks of not being in control of its #AskSeaWorld campaign, dubbed “You ask, we answer”. It soon found itself in at the deep end as Twitter users flooded the hashtag with sarcastic questions and comments concerning animal welfare.

What can be done when a company’s social media campaign veers off on an unplanned tack, or a thoughtless post goes viral?

“Social media is no longer ‘the thing that the kids do’ — it’s the new communications medium and businesses need to take it seriously,” says Phil Mennie, head of global social media risk and governance at PwC, the professional services firm.

Yet businesses are still mishandling their navigation of the evolving and unforgiving social media landscape.

Experts say the most successful social media plans include input from different areas of expertise such as risk and compliance, as well as marketing.

Companies’ social media risks fall into two main categories, says Alexander Larsen, a fellow of the Institute of Risk Management, a global trade body: employees’ use of social media and the organisation’s own presence on social media.

The former may involve leaks of companies’ intellectual property and data by revealing information, or loss of reputation by association if employees express unacceptable views. The latter ranges from unintended posts going viral or social media campaigns taking an unexpected turn, as was the case with SeaWorld.

Victoria Robinson, a chartered marketer and head of communications at the Institute of Risk Management, adds: “Consumers love nothing more than sharing cringeworthy examples of bad practice, making these cases go viral . . . educating staff is essential, from board member to junior staff.” Preparing media-management plans in advance to deal with different outcomes will help organisations to avoid incidents and to respond effectively if one does occur, she says.

Justin McCarthy, chairman of the Professional Risk Managers’ International Association, adds that a company must be ready to act speedily and decisively after a mistake has occurred.

When KitchenAid’s official account posted a tasteless tweet concerning US President Barack Obama’s late grandmother in 2012 — meant for an employee’s personal account — the brand responded quickly.

As well as deleting the message, which had been seen by many people, a senior executive took to Twitter to apologise and say the individual would no longer be tweeting on behalf of the company.

The KitchenAid incident holds two lessons: respond quickly and firmly to a gaffe; and insist employees keep work accounts away from their personal ones.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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