#hashtagfail: What to do when a social campaign goes bad

Inviting audiences to share their content or comments via a hashtag campaign has long been a social media staple. But that comes with considerable risk that the campaign could go sour – at best failing to inspire engagement, at worst inviting outright ridicule.

The latest brand to invite Tweeters’ fury was IBM, who this week launched a well-meaning but nonetheless ill-considered campaign inviting women to consider careers in STEM by hacking a hairdryer.

The response from women on Twitter was a storm of rage and ridicule:



While IBM have provided a textbook example of User Generated Fury, there’s a lot others can learn from their response. First, they apologised – quickly and unreservedly, acknowledging why people felt the campaign was offensive.


They also deleted the offending tweet. While this opens up brands to accusations of trying to rewrite history, or pretending the incident didn’t happen, it also limits the damage. A ‘offending’ tweet can continue to be in circulation – and generating ire – long after the apology is issued. This was a tough call to make, but in my view the right one.

Many commentators are surprised that IBM, longtime champions of diversity in tech, made such an elementary error at all. Where I think they fell down is in failing to anticipate the response. They could and should have foreseen that a tactic that perpetuates gender stereotypes might go down badly in a campaign about combatting those stereotypes.

If you’re planning on any hashtag campaign, invest some time in planning. Before launch ask your entire team to think of all the ways in which it could go wrong.

Conducting a campaign pre-mortem like this helps you to identify and mitigate the risk things will go wrong – and help you plan what to do if your hashtag becomes a bashtag.

Hashtags are still one of the most effective ways to build engagement and participation with a campaign. While #HackAHairdryer highlights the risks in running social campaigns, it also shows that a swift apology can limit the reputational damage. Spend some time planning to avoid and manage disaster and proceed with caution.

Have you had a social campaign go south? What lessons did you learn? Let me know in the comments below.

One thought on “#hashtagfail: What to do when a social campaign goes bad

  1. Pingback: #hastagfail: What to do when a social campaign goes bad – Sharon O’Dea | Public Sector Blogs

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