PR nightmares: when complaints go viral

In the world of social media word spreads rapidly. Within hours a single post can attract the attention of millions of users around the world. A fast-paced climate like this can make or break a company’s reputation, so social media managers need to stay vigilant on their online platforms and be able to respond quickly to their customers. If a complaint posted on a social media page is not dealt with immediately, it can cause irreparable harm to the company’s reputation in no time at all. The countless social media catastrophes that have occurred in recent years are proof of just how quickly damage can be done.

Negative reviews can spring up at any time, taking business owners by surprise. Used ever more frequently, the term, ‘PR nightmare’ is a perfectly fitting term for this scenario. It sounds truly frightening, and for business owners, it can be. A viral social media post can tarnish a company’s reputation for years.

However, this crisis can be avoided with a fast and appropriate response. Read on for information about PR nightmares and how they typically occur, and discover some general guidelines for crisis communication.

What is a PR nightmare?

‘PR nightmare’ is a term used within corporations and the media to describe an embarrassing event that creates a bad reputation for a person, group, or business. Since the birth of social media, PR nightmares are increasingly caused by highly publicized comments from dissatisfied consumers. These viral posts are characterized by highly emotional, using language that is aggressive or offensive, and their ability to spread through social media channels like wildfire.

The fact that internet users often resort to aggressive, vulgar, or openly prejudicial language in their online comments is generally attributed to the disinhibiting effect of online communication. Thanks to the perceived anonymity of the internet users often feel secure publishing comments that would be unacceptable in a different setting.

If such viral posts target a specific person, this can become a form of cyber-bullying that includes various forms of defamation, harassment, and assault against individuals. If a user writes something online with the intention of disparaging or humiliating his or her target, the comment can be interpreted as hate speech and could be punishable by law in certain countries. While in the United States, such comments are protected under the First Amendment, in Canada, and across Europe, defamatory posts like these can fall under harassment, libel, or hate speech, and are therefore considered criminal offenses.

How viral social media posts become PR nightmares

PR nightmares don’t just happen; there is a cause at the root of each one. In the context of business, the most common triggers for a viral post include controversial campaigns and practices, failures in communication, defective products, or failing to meet the client’s expectations. Complaints that go viral usually center on dissatisfied customers or a reaction to an offensive or immoral action by the company. The process always starts with a single post or comment. Using dialog-oriented communication channels, consumers can make their criticism visible to the public; this alone is an indication of the power consumers have. With the company’s social media profiles on the front line, PR nightmares occur when a criticism gains traction with other members of the community voicing a similar opinion. When this happens, the situation can snowball rapidly, and within minutes, the original comment can gather the support of a large group of people. However, one of the biggest problems with viral social media posts is that comments can often drift from the subject of the original post, and honest criticism can descend into vicious and senseless attacks. Media coverage also plays a major role in the development of a PR nightmare. Without the media’s influence, a wave of negative comments can quickly be resolved, deleted, or forgotten without a great impact on the company or its communication channels. However, these situations become true nightmares for the company if the viral post catches the interest of the mass media. This will create additional pressure for the addressee to respond to the criticism. Phase models can help to visualize the natural progression of a viral post. The social media monitoring company, BIG (Business Intelligence Group) divides the process into three phases; these mark the start, turning point and end of a viral complaint:

  • Pre-phase: in the pre-phase, the volume of comments is at a normal level – the number and tone of the posts show no abnormalities.
  • Acute phase: the acute phase is when the post begins to attract an unusually high number of negative comments. In this phase, the frequency of negative posts is at its highest. This often coincides with the post attracting the attention of the mass media, which draws even more attention to the viral post. If there are no further events that continue to provoke the public (i.e. failures in communication), a downturn will occur bringing the acute phase to an end.
  • Post phase: the post-phase is the aftermath of a PR nightmare. Even when the uproar begins to die down, and comments return to their normal rate, the fact remains: when something makes waves online, the evidence remains forever. 

PR nightmares are mostly driven by the sharp increase in critical comments during the acute phase, which is why these attacks are known for being so brutally aggressive. On social media platforms in particular, protests and outrage can spread like wildfire. This means that topics can often be taken out of context and opinions can be biased. With the speed of online communication, it is often impossible for the addressee to quell small waves of criticism before it turns into a tsunami. If an individual targets a business with a grievance, it can gain support from other individuals very quickly. This is known as the ‘David versus Goliath’ principle; this is where supposedly weak individuals rise up against large enterprise that is perceived as overly powerful. PR nightmares can, therefore, occur without the company being at fault in any way.

Dealing with a PR nightmare

At the 2012 Social Media Marketing Conference, Swiss PR experts Barbara Schwede and Daniel Grad proposed a six-stage strategy for coping with PR nightmares. This so-called ‘Shitstorm Scale’ is something like a weather report, but for social media meltdowns. The scale offers companies a plan for assessing and dealing with the wave of criticism at every stage, from the quiet breeze of isolated negative comments to the howling wind of prolonged criticism, to the hurricane of negative attention from the viral post.

The long-term impact of a PR nightmare on a business’s reputation is relative to the amount of negative comments received. Additionally, the seriousness of the incident and its long-term consequences can be determined by the persistence of the comments and the social media platform used.

  • Number of comments: the seriousness of a PR nightmare can be estimated by comparing the number of negative comments to the normal number.
  • Persistence: this refers to how long the backlash endures and includes viral social media posts, as well as comments on blog and websites and media attention. This factor is influenced by the internet platform as well as the availability of control facilities.
  • Relevance: the outreach and visibility of the addressee have a great influence on whether or not the viral post has the potential to harm the business in the long term.

The world’s worst PR nightmares

The following examples illustrate how extreme backlash develops and what businesses and individuals can do to counteract the public uproar.

‘Dell Hell’ and why you should listen to your critics: a cautionary tale

In 2005, the American blogger and journalist Jeff Jarvis caused the first major PR nightmare in the history of the internet. Frustrated by Dell’s products and customer service, Jarvis published a stream of posts on his blog, in which he publicly aired his grievances with the computer manufacturing company. While the company ignored his criticism, which was published under the title, ‘Dell lies. Dell sucks’, his blog gained a great deal of attention from the wider public.

The blog, which already had a considerable online outreach, rapidly gained support from internet users, who began to share their own experiences with the computer manufacturers. Within a remarkably short space of time, Dell found itself in the midst of a PR nightmare on an unprecedented level. Sales volumes dropped as innumerable news sources reported on the incident, coining the headline ‘Dell Hell’.

Eventually, Dell invested $150 million in specialists, who combed through the company’s social media channels to face the critics and determine the source of the uproar. After successfully appeasing the critics and quelling the furore, ‘Dell Hell’ is now regarded as a prime example of how a PR nightmare can quickly get out of hand and the effectiveness of professional crisis management.

Nestlé: the power of viral videos

Nestlé, the world’s biggest food company, provoked the most famous PR nightmares in history – provoked by the uncomfortable truth behind their KitKat bars. It all started in 2010 when the environmental organization, Greenpeace, posted a video to YouTube that was so shocking that it put Nestlé customers off their food. This video showed a man unwrapping a KitKat, but instead of finding a chocolate bar inside, the wrapping falls away to reveal a bloody orangutan finger.

With this viral video, Greenpeace creates a direct link between Nestlé’s use of palm oil in its products and the rapid endangerment of orangutans in the Indonesian jungle. Their message is clear: because of the controversial use of palm oil suppliers …, consumers of Nestlé products are responsible for the destruction of the orangutan’s natural habitat. With the video lingering on images of blood sticking to the consumer’s hands, the campaign painted a less than flattering portrait of Nestlé.

The food company quickly succeeded in having the viral video removed from YouTube and banned all the negative comments from its Facebook profile – the worst possible strategy in crisis management. These attempts to smother the backlash only fueled public indignation, which resulted in Greenpeace’s video quickly re-emerging all over the internet. The corporation eventually caved to the growing pressure and changed its palm oil supplier.

Schlecker: the importance of being tactful

‘For You. Vor Ort’ (For you. On site.) was the slogan of the now insolvent German drugstore chain, Schlecker. The intention of such a tagline was to demonstrate the company’s concern for the customer. Determined to shake off its tired reputation and rebrand itself as a serious, modern business, the company adjusted its image using a snappy slogan in a mixture of English and German to demonstrate its international flair. So far so good.

Unfortunately for Schlecker, the Verein für Sprachpflege (association for language conservation) found this slogan less than inspiring. The group, whose raison d’être is to condemn ‘offences against the German language’ and counter the use of English words and phrases in the German language, publicly criticized Schlecker. However, the company’s communications branch then dug themselves an even deeper hole.

A media spokesperson for Schlecker defended the motto in the worst possible way. The publicist claimed the simple mishmash of languages appealed directly to their demographic: people with a ‘low to medium level of education’, before claiming Schlecker was not aimed at ‘cultured linguists’. While this statement amused the press, it caused outrage among its target group. The online community riled against the business, and the spokesperson’s comments landed the company in a self-imposed PR nightmare that eventually brought about the downfall of the company.

The European Championship: killing dogs in the name of the beautiful game

The PR nightmare faced by UEFA in the run-up to the 2012 European Football Championship, is much more serious. As any host country would, Ukraine wanted to show itself in the best light at the international event. But the country was overrun by street dogs, making the cities dirty and dangerous for visitors. Their solution: to systematically poison and burn the homeless animals.

Animal rights activists around the world were up in arms and took to the internet to raise awareness of the torture of the Ukrainian street dogs. Around the world, activists called for a boycott of EUFA. The animal rights organization, PETA, and the Facebook page ‘Stop Killing Dogs’ made headlines. As the PR nightmare reached its climax, sponsors began to distance themselves from the event in order to avoid getting tangled up in the scandal. Finally, the Ukrainian government decided to take action against the mass extermination of street dogs. Today, the country is resolving the issue of homeless animals using castration.

O2 customer service fail: this is an isolated incident

Impaired data connections and sudden disconnections are not uncommon in congested areas. When these problems occur mobile operators need to calm angry customers and resolve the problem as quickly as possible. In 2011 the network provider O2 failed massively in both areas.

It all started with a viral blog post. Using the headline, ‘Wir sind Einzelfall’ (‘these are isolated incidents’), IT developer Matthias Bauer aired his frustrations about the phone network’s customer service. After continual network crashes, the company’s representatives insisted that Bauer’s problem was an isolated incident, referring to these crashes as ‘temporary disturbances’ and ‘locally limited’. The blogger, however, disproved these claims time and time again.

On the (now deleted) website, ‘’, Bauer published a survey, allowing other O2 customers to publish their own experiences with the mobile operator. Within six days, the blog received over 700 responses, and it became apparent that in fact, thousands of people were affected by these so-called ‘isolated incident’, and this posed a very serious threat to O2’s reputation. In the face of ever-growing pressure from the public, the network operator finally admitted that these could no longer be considered isolated incidents, prompting them to announce a network expansion.

ING-DiBa: Nowitzki and the sausage

A viral complaint about the German bank, ING-DiBa, demonstrates how a PR nightmare can change course as it develops. A 2012 ad campaign showed basketball player Dirk Nowitzki eating a slice of sausage. The vegan community was outraged at the blatant display of meat consumption and the company was overwhelmed with criticism on its social media channels.

ING-DiBa stood their ground and let the mob rage on. As one spokesperson insisted, ‘We don’t want to censor anything, and we are open to a free discussion’. The bank undeniably hit its target. The German media pounced on this bizarre viral post story, and with it, so did many meat eaters. The critics were condemned for using an aggressive tone against a company that, in many people’s eyes, had done nothing wrong. Soon, the voices of the offended customers were suppressed by a larger group of loyal customers and meat eaters.

ING-DiBa used this incident to its advantage; as one spokesperson stated, ‘Our customers have shown solidarity with us, completely of their own accord. Customer satisfaction is at the core our strong brand.’

My Pril, my way: chicken-flavored washing up liquid

In an attempt to boost sales, European detergent brand, Henkel, decided to allow their customers to create limited edition designs, letting their imaginations run wild. At least, that was the idea behind their 2011 social media campaign, ‘Mein Pril - Mein Stil’ (‘my Pril, my way’). Henkel announced that it would add two customer-designed versions of Pril to its collection, and the customers themselves would vote on which design would be produced.

Despite the campaign’s potential for crowdsourcing, the company did not foresee the backlash from internet ‘trolls’. Rather than selecting the best design, the voters chose the weirdest: a bottle with the slogan, ‘Tastes yummy like chicken’ scrawled across a brown label.

Because of this, Henkel didn’t present the results of the advertising campaign. Instead of honoring its promise to produce the winners of the vote, the company allowed a jury to select two appropriate designs from the ten most popular proposals. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t go for the barbecue chicken. Many survey participants felt deceived and protested the alleged manipulation via viral Facebook and Twitter posts. Henkel learned the hard way: no one likes a spoilsport.

Crisis communication: the professional way to handle a PR nightmare

As these anecdotes demonstrate, PR nightmares can occur in a number of ways. PR nightmares are not limited to faceless companies. Individuals also often find themselves caught in the crossfire. In particular, celebrities and public figures fall victim to viral social media posts time and time again. Our cultural fascination with celebrities means that well-known singers, actors, sports stars and TV personalities are constantly in danger of encountering a PR nightmare, without them necessarily having to do anything commonly thought of as wrong. For the victims of a viral post, using social media correctly can be one of the biggest challenges.

As we have seen from the above examples, the addressee is not always at fault. While there’s no foolproof method of avoiding these disasters, there are certain communication guidelines recommended by PR strategists; with these guidelines, victims of a PR nightmare can appease the critics and avoid an escalation of the situation.

  • Stay calm and analyze the situation: when a PR nightmare is brewing companies tend to overreact. But before countermeasures are taken, it’s important to evaluate the situation and ask the following questions: are you just receiving more negative comments than normal, or is this really a serious case of viral posting? Is the criticism justified? And what options are there for appeasing the critics?

  • Avoid censoring the criticism: knee-jerk reactions such as deleting unwelcome comments or turning off comment functions on social media platform should be avoided. As the Nestlé crisis has proven, viral posts are boundless and they can simply shift from one platform to another. Legal measures should also be considered. Typically, corporations cause even more damage to their image when they attempt to suppress their critics’ opinions. If attacks are unjustified, or unnecessarily aggressive or insulting, they are generally not taken very seriously anyway. The ING-DiBa story also proves that in some cases, a community of customers will defend the business against the barrage of viral posts, and in doing so, protect the reputation of the company.
  • Take critics seriously and acknowledge errors: when a company is at fault, dubious tactics are often used in an attempt to escape blame. But when the first negative comments appear, denying or disputing the claims will not stop the backlash from viral social media posts. Critical voices should instead be taken seriously, as should the future of the company’s image. Denying or keeping silent in the face of obvious grievances will only drag out the effects of the PR nightmare unnecessarily, and twisting facts and rejecting responsibility will also just escalate the situation. To get out of the line of fire as smoothly as possible, it’s advisable for to companies own up to their failures and discuss the possible repercussions without attempting to excuse them. Companies should also come up with a plan to compensate for any damage caused and a strategy for avoiding the future repetition of their mistakes.
  • Open and comprehensive communication: crisis communication is the biggest challenge in maintaining a good image. If damage has been done to the company’s reputation, absolute transparency is the most effective way to regain the customer’s trust. But when disaster strikes, it’s not only the customers who demand an explanation. Many other people can be affected, including stakeholders such as employees, suppliers, donors, or shareholders, and these people also need to be updated on the state of play. A certain level of tact is required here, therefore, if the company has no PR staff, it’s advised to recruit external help. With the help of experienced consultants, it’s possible to find the right contacts, attract multipliers and influencers, and present information in a way that is appropriate to the target group. Arrogance, ignorance, and indifference are strictly out of the question when it comes to crisis communication. 
  • Remember to act on all communication platforms: during times of crisis, companies should indicate a willingness to communicate. The only way to successfully deal with a PR nightmare is to take criticism seriously. This means that it’s recommendable to include all available communication platforms when dealing with the problem. Press conferences and written communications are useful tools for addressing the public, while customer service hotlines and social media channels can be used to address people at a more human level. The Dell example proves that the structure of communications methods can be associated with high costs.

If companies are able to respond in a timely way, admit to their errors openly and honestly, they can even emerge stronger after a crisis. Recall campaigns are a good example of this, as they demonstrate that the manufacturer or retailer accepts fault and has responded competently and proactively. If a PR nightmare causes a rethinking of practises, a comprehensive restructure, or even a reorientation of the business’ corporate policy, this may well create sympathy from the general public and increase brand awareness.

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