On the face of it, it should have been a pretty innocuous photo.
But when new chancellor Rishi Sunak posted a picture of himself making a round of hot drinks for his team, alongside a large bag of Yorkshire Tea, it caused a storm in a teacup for the brand.
In less time than it takes for a kettle to boil, keyboard warriors took to social media to accuse the company of using the chancellor to endorse their products, of making donations to the Conservative party and of having political bias, and there were posts from people threatening to boycott the tea.
Quick Budget prep break making tea for the team. Nothing like a good Yorkshire brew. pic.twitter.com/zhoQM9Ksho— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) February 21, 2020
So how did it respond to the issue it had no control over?
Well, first with humour. While this is a crisis media management tactic laced with risk, it was well-judged in this situation.
It said: “Nothing to do with us – people of all political stripes like our brew.
“Plus there’s no way we’d intentionally stick ourselves in a Twitter storm on a Friday afternoon. It’s nearly hometime!”
Nothing to do with us - people of all political stripes like our brew.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 21, 2020
Plus there's no way we'd intentionally stick ourselves in a Twitter storm on a Friday afternoon. It's nearly hometime!
Those home time plans were put on hold as the social media team spent the rest of the weekend responding to furious tweeters as it became the latest organisation to endure a brand pile on.
Many organisations fall into the trap of copying and pasting the same message to everyone who posts about an issue – something we have highlighted before in our social media training blogs.
Yorkshire Tea did admittedly refer many people to its initial response on this issue, but there were also plenty of individual replies which helped to create a conversational tone.
But the thing that stands out most about its handling of the incident is the way it used it to highlight the personal implications of being in the midst of a social media storm and show the impact it can have on those managing corporate accounts.
This first came through in some individual responses. When someone posted a picture of some rival tea with a message saying they wouldn’t be buying Yorkshire Tea again, the brand responded by saying: “Please continue to buy a different tea – we’ve had quite enough of bullies for one week.”
Hi Adam! Please continue to buy a different tea - we've had quite enough of bullies for one week.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
And in responses to an ongoing conversation with one user about whether it donated to the Conservative party, it said: “For heaven’s sake Robin! We’ve already said no twice. We’ve been so surprised this weekend by people’s sheer determination to stay hostile on the basis of absolutely nothing. Please have a thought for our social media team.”
Yorkshire Team elaborated on this further on Monday afternoon, three days after the saga started, with a series of tweets revealing the stress of dealing with the condemnation and finishing with a timely plea to ‘be kind’.
It said it was shocked by the “determination some have had to drag us into a political mudfight” and added: “For anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company – please remember there’s a human on the other end of it, and try to be kind.”
So it's been a rough weekend.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
On Friday, the Chancellor shared a photo of our tea. Politicians do that sometimes (Jeremy Corbyn did it in 2017). We weren't asked or involved - and we said so the same day. Lots of people got angry with us all the same. pic.twitter.com/7uVmKDf7Jd
We've spent the last three days answering furious accusations and boycott calls. For some, our tea just being drunk by someone they don't like means it's forever tainted, and they've made sure we know it.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
It's been pretty shocking to see the determination some have had to drag us into a political mudfight. But it's been lovely to see others speak up for us - we're so grateful to everyone who's done that in a civil way (and gutted to see some use it as a reason for more nastiness).— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
Speaking directly now, as the person who's been answering these tweets, I know it could have been much worse. It's easier to be on the receiving end of this as a brand than as an individual. There's more emotional distance and I've had a team to support me when it got a bit much.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
But for anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company - please remember there's a human on the other end of it, and try to be kind.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
Yorkshire Tea got its response right. The approach it took feels authentic and sincere and it used the situation to highlight an important issue - social media done ‘proper’, to borrow one of the brand’s taglines.
But does this mean that you should respond in the same way if your organisation becomes the subject of boycott calls?
We live in a time of easy outrage and calls for boycotts are happening regularly on social media.
These protests rarely last long in the memory and there is an argument that their impact is being diluted because they are so commonplace.
It is also worth considering whether those vowing not to buy your product or use your service again are actually your customers, or are they people jumping on the latest social media bandwagon.
And, let’s face it, there is also a big difference between vowing to do something on Twitter or Facebook and actually breaking your shopping habits.
Responding to boycott calls can additionally amplify an issue.
When you are in the storm, the big fear is that it will cause reputational damage – particularly when the negative social media coverage prompts the attention of mainstream media.
But the media interest in this story was sparked by Yorkshire Tea speaking out about its treatment.
If you’ve done something wrong, then normal crisis media management rules apply and you need to respond quickly.
But, if you’re not at fault and the incident is beyond your control a ‘wait it out’ approach might be effective.
Whatever you decide, you must prepare. A boycott, just like any crisis, can affect any organisation at any time.
Even something as simple as making a cup of tea can trigger one.
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.
Subscribe here to be among the first to receive our blogs.