by Mark Walsh, Account Executive

Last week we saw a good example of two questions that we in PR ask ourselves quite regularly. Firstly, how effective is social media in promoting a brand and secondly is there such thing as bad publicity?

On the second question, I’m sure British Airways answer is a definite yes after their IT failure and response to the issue turned into a PR disaster and a good case study for how to not handle a crises, but I digress.

The topic for this discussion is the Walkers Crisps online campaign that went horribly wrong (or right but I’ll come to that).

As I’m sure many of you saw last Friday, Walkers asked people to send selfies to their Twitter account. These images would then be automatically used in an animation video with ex footballer/Walkers Ambassador Gary Lineker appearing to hold up their picture in a video. Unfortunately for Walkers, Twitter users began to send in images of notorious criminals and historical figures and soon Gary Lineker was holding up pictures of Joseph Stalin and Jimmy Saville.

At first it seems that this should have been easily predicted and that Walkers were incredibly naive to think that something like this wouldn’t happen. After all a similar high profile misjudgement occurred last year when a British government agency decided to let the internet suggest a name for a €255 million polar research ship. While some ‘suitable’ names were put forward, the name Boaty McBoatface was the runaway winner. What must have seemed like a good idea to begin with: give the online community complete freedom to dictate an online campaign, didn’t quite work out as planned.

This leads on to the second question. While the Walkers campaign was effective in getting people engaged and talking about the crisps (although for the wrong reasons) was the so called negative publicity a bad thing? It’s easy to be cynical but did Walkers foresee some sort of mischief from the online community and decided it would be a good way to get publicity for their campaign? After all can they really be blamed if people decided to upload pictures of criminals when Walkers asked for selfies?

Undertaking an online campaign and giving total control to the online community can result in a PR disaster that a traditional media campaign, where engagement is managed, usually avoids. However it can be effective for generating controversy, debate and focusing attention on a brand. Whether you want this type of attention or not though is another issue and I’m not suggesting that that was Walkers intention.

Walkers did issue an apology and shut down all activity on the campaign while Gary Lineker tweeted that he had ‘an unusual day with some strange company’. No real harm done but a great deal of publicity was generated for Walkers.

As proven today, sometimes all it takes is even just one word (anyone for covfefe?) in a tweet, for the online community to go into overdrive with a series of humorous responses and next thing you know, your mistake is the number one trend.