A tone-deaf tweet and three other self-inflicted social media disasters

There can only be one contender for the unwanted prize of social media fail of the week – and it’s only Wednesday.

An offensive tweet which left many people wondering how an organisation could apparently be so flippant about tragedy should have been enough for one social media crisis.

But this particular issue was compounded by an attempt to justify the tweet before it was removed.

I am of course discussing the extraordinary case of New Zealand Police and its decision to tweet about how hard it is to tell someone their family member has died in a car crash – and illustrate it with a gif of actor Steve Carell saying ‘this is the worst’.


The post was only live for a matter of minutes before a strong response led to it being deleted. But in that time the force tried to justify the tweet by saying ‘Telling someone their loved (sic) is not coming home is one of the hardest things cops ever have to do’.



Once the Tweet was removed, the Force did apologise, saying the tweet was ‘wrong and insensitive’.


Karen Jones, the force’s deputy chief executive of public affairs, subsequently elaborated on this, telling the New Zealand Herald: “We feel terrible about this mistake, as we put victims at the heart of what police do.

"Social media is a hugely important channel to NZ Police and we appreciated the prompt feedback we got from members of our community who pointed out the inappropriateness of the tweet.

"We are extremely sorry and will learn from this."

As decent an apology as that is, the damage had been done with damaging headlines from publications around the world. Here are a few examples:


Police in New Zealand apologise for ‘insensitive’ tweet about road fatalities Sky News

New Zealand Police sorry for crash death tweet BBC News

New Zealand Police apologise for offensive ‘The Office’ Tweet Huffington Post Australia

Police apologise over ‘insensitive’ traffic death tweet using Steve Carell meme Belfast Telegraph


The force has promised to ‘learn from its mistake’, but it is far from the first company or organisation to find itself at the centre of a self-inflicted reputation crisis as a result of a social media post.

Back in the UK, Greater Manchester found that the quest for humour, particularly edgy humour, can lead to painful mistakes which land corporate accounts in seriously hot water. It found itself at the centre of an online backlash last year after tweeting a picture of two men wearing Nazi uniforms standing next to a German military vehicle on the M62. It captioned it by saying “M62 J22 on the West Yorkshire border. These two likely lads trying to invade.” The force subsequently apologised for the ‘unacceptable’ content which ‘caused offence to a number of people’.



London Dungeon found itself at the centre of a furious Twitter and Facebook storm when its ‘Dark valentine’ campaign backfired amid allegation of sexism and misogyny earlier this year. Although it deleted the offending posts – a course of action we recommend on our social media training and crisis communications training courses – it then compounded the issue with a poorly thought out apology.

It opted to say ‘sorry’ by using the same branding as the damaging campaign –something which ensured the apology did not sound genuine, while the phrase ‘we recognise we’ve upset some people’ felt like an attempt to play down the PR disaster.



Homebase found itself staring at damaging headlines when it tried to shoehorn a trending, yet completely unrelated, hashtag into one of its Tweets. As Twitter users paid tribute to the singer Prince, a tweet was sent from the company’s @Homebase_help account which read: “Good morning everyone, happy Friday. If you need our assistance we’re here until 8pm today, get tweeting. Have a good day! #RIPPRINCE

The tweet was lambasted for being ‘inappropriate’ and ‘tasteless’ while others accused the company of ‘exploiting his death’.



These examples and the New Zealand police one were all hugely damaging, yet they could have been easily avoided.

On our social media training courses we tell delegates there are a few simple checks they should take before posting from corporate social media accounts, particularly when they are trying to be edgy or funny, to help avoid making similar mistakes:

*Has anyone else seen the content – how did they react?

*Could people be offended by the post?

*Is this right for our audience?

*Will the audience think what you think?

*Will people understand the humour?


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.

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