3 Scary Social Media Horror Stories That Will Haunt Your PR Dreams

Girl with pink hair listening to headphones.

3 Scary Social Media Horror Stories That Will Haunt Your PR Dreams

With Halloween approaching, it’s time to share some spooky tales. But we also like to stick with our brand, so we’ve rounded up the best social media horror stories from the past few years to give you some ideas about what not to do. Pull up a crackling fire screensaver and we’ll get started.

Kicka** Media Gets Kicked in the . . .

In October 2019, a media company located in Austin, Texas posted an image to their Instagram story, mocking a woman in a bikini for being “unprofessional.”

The kicker? The woman’s photo they shared was a recent applicant to their internship program.

The caption to the photo, which shows a young woman in a bikini with her face cropped out of frame, reads, “PSA (because I know some of you applicants are looking at this): do not share you social media with potential employers if this is the kind of content on it. I am looking for a professional marketer – not a bikini model. Go on with your bad self and do whatever in private. But this is not doing you any favors in finding a professional job.”

Emily Clow applied to work at Kickass Media earlier in the day. In an interview, she claimed she had not followed the company on social media until after they had posted her photo.

The backlash, as it often is, was swift and fierce. As of October 3, the media company had deactivated its Twitter account and made their Instagram account private.

What makes this a horror story?

The company used its social media channels to harass a woman for what she was wearing, declaring that women who posted photos in bathing suits were not considered “professional.”

What should you do differently?

Don’t use your social media channels to spread ad hominum attacks, or use your platforms to publicly shame people. As a brand, you have a responsibility to uphold a standard of ethics that promotes equal treatment to all.


Don’t Go Breakin’ My (Kevin) Hart

At the tail end of 2018, actor Kevin Hart was announced as the host for the 2019 Oscars. The Academy tweeted his acceptance to host:

But the tables quickly turned as people unearthed old tweets and jokes of Harts’. The masses took to social media, sharing old clips of Hart’s stand up gigs, outlining where he had gone wrong. Several contained offensive remarks about the LGBTQ community, and when pressed by fans and foes alike to apologize, Hart refused. He stated he had previous addressed the issue, and did not feel obligated to apologize once more.

In 2015, Hart had admitted he would not tell the same homophobic jokes from his comedic past, but without apologizing for his past behavior. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Hart said, “I wouldn’t tell that joke today, because when I said it, the times weren’t as sensitive as they are now. “I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals, because we can. These things become public spectacles. So why set yourself up for failure?”

This refusal to acknowledge his problematic former jokes and make amends to those he offended was the reason the Academy eventually withdrew their offer to host. Although Hart had initally said he would not apologize, he eventually did, tweeting out:

What makes this a horror story?

Hart made a series of homophobic jokes several years ago, but refused to apologize for his words when called out for his misbehavior, instead blaming the jokes’ poor reception on “politically-correct” culture.

What should you do differently?

Hart’s story carries a lot of nuance, but does teach some pretty simple lessons. Comedians and brands carry different social weight; don’t make hurtful jokes about marginalized communities (or anyone, really!), but be brave enough to apologize if you make a mistake. You can’t control when people will find certain things offensive, but you can listen when they tell you your company’s words or actions hurt them. Even if you had good intentions, maintaining a brand reputation built on an ability to apologize and make amends when possible goes a long way. (Especially when consumers care so much about a brand’s sense of ethics.)


Should’ve Had a Coke

In 2017, Pepsi released an ad that featured popular supermodel and reality TV star Kendall Jenner. In the ad, Jenner’s character is in the middle of a photo shoot, when she spots some protesters up the street. She leaves the shoot and heads to the crowd, sharing a Pepsi with them in a symbol of unity. Sounds pretty innocuous.

Usually this would have been a slam dunk marketing move—Jenner has nearly 117 million followers on Instagram alone. But the company released the ad in the midst of heavy political tension, and the message it sent seemed to trivialize the less-than-picturesque protests happening around the country in the wake of movements like Black Lives Matter. Using a cultural sticking point that had caused violent protests and outraged responses turned out to be less than lovable.

Pepsi eventually pulled the ad and issued an apology.

What makes this a horror story?

Pepsi attempted to capitalize on a nationwide movement protesting police brutality, offering their brand as a solution to an increasingly difficult problem. Customers considered this an attempt to use a political backdrop to sell some soda, and were frustrated Pepsi didn’t take it seriously.

What should you do differently?

While staying culturally relevant is important, do some research to see how your people will perceive your messaging if you try to enter the conversation. If consumers perceive your brand as merely trying to sell something by using hot-button issues as a backdrop, they won’t be pleased.


SUNNYD Can’t Do This Anymore

We figured we’ve scared you enough with our three horror stories about, so let’s end on a happier note. SUNNYD, the popular orange juice-flavored drink of the 90s, came back in full force with this tweet in early 2019:

At first glance, it was a bit disconcerting for a brand to suddenly take on human emotions (even though Wendy’s has been doing it for years). But given the overwhelming trend of millennial nihilism that’s popular on the social media platform, other brands started jumping in.

Even one of Boostability’s neighbors to the north, Snowbird Ski Resort, got in on the action.

What makes this a non-horror story?

A brand that was popular with many Twitter users in decades past figured out a way to use meme culture to make a statement.

What should you try?

Figure out appropriate ways for your brand to stay “in the know” with what the kids are up to these days. Make sure it’s natural—no one loves an impostor—but finding fun ways to engage with more mainstream pop culture is usually a good idea.

Madeline Thatcher
[email protected]

Madeline previously worked as a content specialist for Boostability.