FORTUNE -- The Internet may be a wonderful thing, but no one should expect sunshine and rainbows when asking for its honest opinion. Read an uncensored comment stream on pretty much any post, blog or video, and its clear that the Web provides people with, among other services, space to criticize, constructively or otherwise.
So McDonald's (MCD) should have known better when it got knocked on its heels after launching a Twitter campaign on January 24. The idea wasn't a bad one -- pay for a couple of promoted tweets encouraging customers to get in touch with farmers. First, the company pushed the hashtag #meetthefarmers. But in the middle of the campaign, the fast-food goliath introduced the hashtag #McDStories, hoping to stir up good press about consumers' experience at its restaurants.
The first hashtag was saying, "Here are the great people who make our potatoes." The second says, "Tell us what you think of us," which, in the Web world, is risky business.
McDonald's found that out the hard way. The promoted tweets received 72,000 responses, McDonald's head of social media Rick Wion tweeted, and only 2% were negative. But many of the tweets were just plain mean, gross or, even worse for McDonald's, hilarious. There was enough of a negative response that McDonald's, which did not respond with a comment for this story, pulled the campaign a couple of hours post launch.
Granted, this is not a major corporate crisis, says Sharon Napier, CEO of Rochester ad agency Partners + Napier. "It didn't kill people or change our environment. McDonald's just made a really silly promotional mistake." But the company should have never let this happen in the first place, she says, and mistakes such as these aren't harmless.
Bad press can hurt a brand, even when comments are meant as a joke, and even if they are over-the-top, says Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University. "Once you have a negative association, it's almost impossible to just remove the link from people's minds," Fitzsimons says.
Companies would be wise to know that before they stumble into a social media fiasco. "As much as everyone believes that the mobile world is this wonderful petri dish, companies should never feel caught by surprise when news turns negative," says Andrew Pierce, U.S. President of brand consultancy firm Prophet. More
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