Social Media: A Weapon of Mass Reputation Destruction


Source: Andrew Kuznetsov

Has social media become a weapon of mass communication and mass destruction?

Following on from my last two blogs posts, so far we’ve looked at:

1. How the PR role has increasingly become about encouraging listening and engaging in dialogue in order to build and maintain relationships with stakeholders and publics online.

2. How social media poses potential threats to brands and campaigns via direct channels of communication between publics and an organisation.

One thing is for sure and that is, the popularity of social media makes it a forum that can’t be ignored (Aula, 2010:43).

Back in the day PR was implemented via press releases, advertising and press conferences. Today, public relations practitioners (PRP’s) operate in a world in which there has been an EXPLOSION in the number of diverse ways publics’ seek information and news.

As we have previously discussed, the rise of social media has bought with it shifting patterns of influence and the rise of public power.

Moreover, social media has made a multifaceted role even more demanding.

  • Controlling and monitoring online dialogue is a very complex and time consuming task.
  • Often one cannot predict the sort of reactions a campaign will receive, once it has gone viral.

TIP: Take note of what NOT to do


Source: Mike Licht


#McDStories Campaign

January 2012

McDonalds launched a Twitter campaign which involved the hashtag #McDStories, prompting users to post heart-warming stories about Happy Meals. Users exploited the novelty hashtag instead, posting horror experiences and shock stories. This bought unwanted levels of transparency, as comments (both negative and positive) were widely disseminated and publics were able to quickly provoke communities of opposition online.

During the two hours of promotion, the hashtag was used over 16,000 times. Social media director Rick Wion told ‘within an hour, we saw that it wasn’t going as planned.”

The #McDStories failure demonstrates how easily reputation can be threatened. However, destruction of reputation can also be caused internally. According to Aula (2010:44), non-functioning to poorly functioning internal operations systems can cause direct or indirect losses to an organisation.

CEO posts elephant hunting video

March 2011

A person’s reputation can become synonymous with the reputation of the brand or campaign. This can be seen in the example, when Bob Parsons, founder of the American company blogged and tweeted a video of him shooting an elephant while on holiday in Zimbabwe. Parsons received an extremely negative backlash from social media channels, directly influencing the positive reputation of the company itself.

– –

“We must absolutely start to recognise that people are people first, only then can we begin to build and manage those relationships that are key to both ours, and our stakeholders future.”

Ian Ryder, Vice President Brand Communication, Unisys

According to Kevin Murray and Bill Pottinger, the best communications strategy to avert potential reputation risks is to encourage dialogue with stakeholders. Employee and stakeholder engagement has become crucial in effective brand and reputation management.  The need to gain public confidence and trust remains paramount to the success of relationships between PRP’s, stakeholders and their publics.

Do you know of any social media campaigns that have failed? What do you think we can we learn from them?

Reference: Aula, P. (2010). Social Media, Reputation Risk and Ambient Publicity. Strategy and Leadership, 38(6), 43-44.


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