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Shitstorms happen but Brands go on!
Communications – PR, Social Media, Content Tools 12 April 2019

Shitstorms happen but Brands go on!

A shitstorm. Faeces flying around you, often accompanied by falling share prices – the word “shitstorm” triggers immediate unease and not just in the communications industry. Even if it is now in our dictionary, the Chancellor likes to use it casually in a speech and we have all seen one with our own eyes, if not participated in one ourselves, a shitstorm remains every company’s nightmare. But what has become of the good old “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”? Has this always been a pseudo-cruel fallacy or have things changed thanks to the ubiquitous comment function? Whether Nike, Heineken or the Hofbräukeller in Haidhausen Nord – all were hit by the most business-damaging of all downturns and have recovered. What does bad PR including a “super-GAU”-shitstorm mean for companies and more importantly, what can it mean in the social media age?

Gloomy mood, heavy thunderstorm, lots of lightning
Source: unsplash / Josep Castells

Perfect shitstorm weather

What a blessing the Internet has brought us. We can chat with friends for free, skype with grandma from our Thailand vacation, in fact we can talk to anyone – even any brand.

The number of messages that companies are bombarded with every day has increased tenfold in the last decade thanks to Facebook, Twitter & Co. The sender: anyone with a keyboard and an opinion. The new transparency of communication demands a lot from those responsible. No picture, no article, no sentence remains uncommented. If it is a case of tangible criticism, a private message or a post that receives increasing approval from the community, the company must respond. When McDonalds happily shares the MSC certificate of its fish with cute hamster content, Dennis Klein from Mössingen, for example, thinks it’s stupid. 27 people agree with Dennis. The global corporation has to answer Dennis. Social media representatives navigate their way through lots of little shitstorms all day long. That costs a lot of time and a lot of money. If a product defect, a service failure or a genuine scandal becomes public in this way, brown clouds immediately gather.

Shit hits the fan

While a corporate scandal was a crisis even before there were corporate pages on Facebook, the multiplication of individual messages brings a whole new level of momentum to the issue. Whereas in the past there was only a need for explanations to journalists, employees and other stakeholders, today there are countless dialogs in comment columns and messengers that have to be answered individually – in most cases publicly. The shitstorm develops a life of its own and becomes the new media headline.

Thunderstorm with single lightning bolt, brighter sky
Source: unsplash / Lucy Chian

Something stinks here

New media headline? Reporting on a campaign on all channels? Bad publicity creditors are likely to get their money’s worth at this point. It is nothing unusual for companies to provoke with campaigns in order to gain reach. It is doubtful whether there is any real calculation behind shitstorm-generating scandals such as those at H&M or Dove, but where is the line between provocation and deliberate shitstorm incitement?


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Heineken also came under fire with its spot for the “Sometimes lighter is better” campaign. You can see a bartender with a bottle of light beer on his way to a white lady passing “unfortunately” only people of color. An internationally active marketing team did not see this blunder? Chance The Rapper also thought this was questionable last year. Do companies risk an uncontrollable shitstorm, a character assassination including accusations of racism? We will never know.

Silver lining on the horizon

What we do learn, however, is how the companies cleaned up the mess. Once the attention was focused on Heineken, the beer company deleted the commercial from all channels, apologized in an official statement and did not forget to mention that it was all about the lightness of the new beer, which by the way has only 99 calories. A piece of information that was adopted for further reporting – a communicative catharsis decorated with product information?

Like Phoenix, Nike also rose from the most political shitstorm of the past year. After cooperating with former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who had previously refused to stand up and sing along to the US national anthem during a training game, a thunderous shitstorm broke out, including burnt Nikes, tweets from Trump and falling share prices. The company stood firm and showed attitude and character on the winning stage. Numerous artists and fans showed solidarity with Kaepernick and praised Nike’s positioning. The campaign was also very well received in the German press. Is the shitstorm here just a means to an end, to be reborn as a stronger brand with a clear political opinion?


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Get shit done!

Clouds, behind which the sun shines. Friendly atmosphere
Source: unsplash / Marcus Dall Col

So let’s formulate a conclusion without conspiracy theories. A shitstorm is bad, costs a lot of money and can quickly break the back of brands that are not as established as H&M, Nike and Heineken. The dynamics of bad publicity have changed due to new active dialog partners (us). However, if companies stand by their message, as in the Nike example and remain steadfast despite the shitstorm, the effect can also be reversed and turn into a real candystorm (official antonym). In future, authenticity, credible action and reaction will allow companies to relax in front of a blazing fireplace in a romantic hut in the mountains, while it’s only quietly storming at the window.

What to do when the shitstorm hits? You can find our 10 tips here!

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