Facing the fire

April 1, 2016 05:49 PM

Perhaps Total Beauty’s decision to live tweet the red carpet at the Oscars seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, less than two weeks earlier Total Beauty, a site that features beauty advice, fitness tips and product reviews, had live tweeted the Grammy Awards.

But at this year’s Academy Awards, the gambit didn’t go so well. Not long after Total Beauty started live tweeting, someone at the site shared a photograph of Whoopi Goldberg in a black strapless dress that exposed a large, distinctive tattoo on her shoulder with the caption, “We had no idea Oprah was #tatted, and we love it.” After discovering the mistake, Total Beauty deleted the tweet. But not before the mistake went viral as more than 1,000 Twitter users retweeted the photo and caption, unearthing a firestorm that led the hashtag #ThatsNotOprah to trend on the platform and hordes of social media users to express a mix of anger and frustration at the brand for mixing up two prominent black celebrities.

The Total Beauty misfire came only a few days after multichannel apparel retailer Lands’ End faced its own social media blowup when pro-life activists opened the retailer’s spring catalog and found an interview between CEO Federica Marchionni and feminist, pro-choice activist Gloria Steinem. Those consumers turned to social media to complain, which prompted Lands’ End to issue a statement: “It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue, so when some of our customers saw a recent promotion that way, we heard them. We sincerely apologize for any offense.” It pulled the interview from

The moves backfired. It fired up pro-choice consumers who turned to social media to post comments like, “Lands’ End had a great idea to put Gloria Steinem in their [sic] ads, and then pulled them when they got complaints. Really Lands’ End? Where is your courage and conviction? No more Lands’ End garb for my family.”

The two incidents are very different. One was a spur-of-the-moment mistake that technology and better protocols could have prevented while the other was a botched response to a long-planned marketing campaign, says Erna Alfred Liousas, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst. But the two situations show that the gift of social media, namely how social media platforms enable consumers and brands to easily interact, also creates challenges for brands. “While social media offers brands plenty of opportunities, it also gives them plenty of opportunities to make mistakes,” she says. Given that retailers and other brands need to actively engage on social media, they have to be prepared to respond when they face a Total Beauty or Lands’ End-like incident because chances are, at some point, they’ll face one.

“The only way you can ensure that you’ll avoid missteps is to say nothing,” says Susan Etlinger, an analyst at Altimeter Group. “And that’s not an option. You’ll face issues and crises no matter what you do. That’s why you have to be prepared.”

It’s safe to say that Total Beauty wasn’t prepared for a backlash. The brand, which declined to speak to Internet Retailer, probably didn’t have, or wasn’t using, safeguards that can help ensure that an errant tweet wouldn’t find its way out, say experts.

Had Total Beauty been using a content-publishing program that maintained a work-flow process that required or enabled a second set of eyes to OK posts or tweets before they’re published, Total Beauty could have correctly identified Goldberg and avoided the backlash, Etlinger says. Of course, adding an approval process to live tweeting events makes tweets slightly less in-the-moment. But it also helps brands avoid an embarrassing incident that’s harmful to the brand.

Total Beauty took more than 40 minutes to delete and acknowledge its mistake. That suggests the brand may not have been using either a social listening vendor that sends alerts if there’s a sudden surge in attention to one of its posts or a social media management platform like Falcon Social that provides a similar alert capability.

“There’s the notion that all publicity is good publicity,” Etlinger says. “But I’m not sure that’s the case here.” After all, this year’s Academy Awards was clouded by the lack of diversity among the 20 acting nominees; for the second year in the row, all the acting nominees were white. That backdrop likely amplified both the Total Beauty mistake and consumers’ reactions to it.

Moreover, the tweet itself—even if it had correctly identified Goldberg—wasn’t particularly relevant to a site focused on beauty products, Alfred Liousas says. “What was Total Beauty trying to say?” she asks. “I would question and urge marketers to question the purpose of any statement that they make.”

Live events are potential landmines for social media misfires, she says, which is why in November she cautioned brands to “think hard before launching your expensive brand-building” during this year’s Olympic Games and the U.S. election in the report, “Predictions 2016: Social Gets Reinforcements.”

“The emotional draw of the Olympics and the U.S. election can tempt brands to interject their own emotional brand stories,” she wrote in the report. “But do your homework: The volatile potential of social media allows consumers to call out inauthentic or misaligned messages.” For example, consumers two years ago denigrated McDonald’s Corp. on social media over the fast food chain’s sponsorship of the Sochi Winter Olympics because of the sharp contrast between Olympians’ health and McDonald’s food.

“If a brand wants to align itself with an event some piece of the brand has to shine through,” Alfred Liousas says. “In the case of Total Beauty, that didn’t happen. It was an acknowledgement of a tattoo, which is great, but what does it have to do with the brand?”

A brand’s response to a social media uproar is critical to whether the issue quickly fades. For example, once Total Beauty deleted its tweet, it apologized and the following day offered to donate $10,000 to Goldberg and Winfrey’s charity of choice in a tweet that included the hashtags #ThatsNotOprah and #WeMeanIt.

Target Corp. similarly resolved a backlash after facing a Twitter onslaught in 2013 after a shopper noticed that the same shade of gray was described as “dark heather grey” for standard sizes but “manatee grey” for plus sizes. While the shopper’s tweet received nearly 500 retweets, Target quickly replied with a tweet: “We apologize for this unintentional oversight & never intend to offend our guests. We’ve heard you, and we’re working to fix it ASAP.”

After explaining that the differing names for the same color was the result of two different buyer teams—only one of which used the color’s official name—the shopper was satisfied and even defended the brand when other consumers sought to pile on. For instance, after one consumer wrote, “Tell Target we are not whales or hippos or elephants but their customers! Fire anyone in connection with this!” the shopper who discovered the differing names replied, “@Target had reasonable explanation - no animus necessary. Color choice was benignly applied here. Engaged brand. A+”

Quickly acknowledging and owning the mistake is the key to surviving a social media firestorm, says Yakov Bart, a Northeastern University professor who studies social media marketing. “You have to show that you’re not just superficially saying, ‘I’m sorry,’” he says. “You have to demonstrate that you recognize and understand what made people angry.” 

Conversely, Lands’ End response to the Gloria Steinem controversy is where its biggest problems arose, Etlinger says. Lands’ End declined to discuss the incident beyond sharing its statement with Internet Retailer.

“Lands’ End chose to put Gloria Steinem in its catalog,” Etlinger says. “When it was making that decision it needed to ask the question, ‘Is this spokesperson reflective of our brand?’” If the decision makers thought that she did, the retailer needed to stand up for its decision, she says. Or if it didn’t want to court controversy, as it noted in its statement, Lands’ End should have reached that decision before putting her in the catalog.

Moreover, had Lands’ End stood up for Steinem and its decision to feature her in its catalog, only the pro-life activists would have been angry. And even those responses may have been muted if the retailer had offered a just explanation as to why the brand wanted to highlight her. But by backtracking, Lands’ End angered both pro-life and pro-choice consumers. “Withdrawing support says more about the brand than Lands’ End probably realized,” she says. “Lands’ End should have had the foresight to have a crisis management process in place to deal with this type of issue.”

Social media blowups are somewhat like security breaches in that the threat is always looming. As long as retailers process transactions or post on social media, issues may arise. Many retailers conduct “fire drills” to help them ready their responses to a data breach, but they also need to prepare for social media mishaps, Etlinger says.

“Every organization needs a plan,” she says. Retailers need to think through potential scenarios that might pose problems—say an employee posts something inappropriate, a product has a safety issue, an executive “goes rogue” in public—and think about how consumers might respond. “Imagine the worst thing that can happen to your brand,” she says. “Plan for that because if know how to handle that, you can handle anything.”

While retailers’ plans need to include social media, everyone at the company needs to be on the same page and understand the workflow around a response, Etlinger says. And they also have to think through how consumers might react to their response. SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, for example, last year launched a marketing push to respond to criticism of its treatment of orca whales that bubbled up in the documentary “Blackfish.” It encouraged consumers to use the hashtag #AskSeaWorld to ask SeaWorld questions on Twitter about topics ranging from breeding to safety and training. But the company failed to consider how consumers might respond.

The effort prompted a slew of negative questions from consumers and activists, all in public view on Twitter. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for instance, asked, “Why do you LIE & tell guests collapsed dorsal fins are normal when only 1% suffer this in the wild?” That post was retweeted nearly 500 times and went unanswered by SeaWorld. By the end of the week that SeaWorld launched the Twitter campaign, it fired off a tweet, “No time for bots and bullies. We want to answer your questions.”  SeaWorld did not respond to a request to comment on the incident. In March it announced plans to end orca breeding.

“SeaWorld’s tweet was a knee-jerk response,” Northeastern’s Bart says. “Even if a company gets trolled, it isn’t doing any good by responding with name calling.” SeaWorld, he says, should have foreseen the potential for a negative reaction to its campaign. Rather than “fuel the fire,” Bart suggests the brand should have shut down the campaign and moved on.

The pivot away from the mistake is critical because mistakes will happen. But with a little planning, the repercussions for those missteps can be minimized.




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