The image of the Golden Arches was tarnished thanks to a mishandled social media campaignWhen you are a company whose products are synonymous with fast food and poor nutrition and whose job posts have made it into the Oxford English Dictionary as a byword for "An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector,” you might, understandably, want to use social media to get a different message across.

This is exactly what McDonald’s did when it decided to pour some cash into Twitter and buy some Twitter hashtags to promote its use of fresh produce, inserting paid-for tweets into the streams of Twitter users with the hashtag #MeetTheFarmers.

The campaign was intended to last 24-hours and it was well-intentioned enough and, initially, at least, appeared to work. When McDonald’s however changed the hashtag to #McDStories things went south very quickly. The hashtag was hijacked by angry customers who posted Tweets like:

"Fingernail in my BigMac once #McDStories, McDonald's Twitter Hashtag Promtion, Goes Horrible Wrong," said user @capnmarrrk.

"Ordered a McDouble, something in the damn thing chipped my molar. #McDStories," @PuppyPuncher said.

"Hospitalized for food poisoning after eating McDonalds in 1989. Never ate there again and became a Vegetarian. Should have sued #MCDStories," @Alice_2112 said.

"Watching a classmate projectile vomit his food all over the restaurant during a 6th grade trip #McDStories," @jfsmith23 said.


Within an hour McDonald's social media director Rick Wion (who in my book should not be holding that job) said, in an interview, that they saw the promotion wasn't going as planned and "set about a change of course".

It’s early days in 2012 but this kind of stuff made the cut in my video of last year on Top Social Disasters and, like in those cases, lessons need to be learnt from this one too:

#1. Words are evocative. Words are vehicles which act as shorthand which unfurls in the reader’s mind. Wion said that their #MeetTheFarmers hashtag received a mostly positive response so it is incredible that no one saw that a change would have a potentially different response by widening the field. If you are going to use social media hashtags tread carefully, think about what the words evoke and retain the strength of your conviction.

#2. Retain control. Social media is a notorious vehicle for losing control. As a matter of fact the very definition of social media is that you give up a certain measure of control of your brand to its followers (and hope for the best). So it makes sense to try and create some kind of guidance and scope by controlling what can be discussed. The #MeetTheFarmers hashtag was inspired because it focused the mind upon what was the true message of the McDonald’s Twitter campaign and limited any scope for widening the field to anything beyond the current conversation. By changing it McDonald’s threw the field wide open to anything which had to do with its stores and there the feedback was bound to be less than positive.

#3. Do not fail to respond. While the #McDStories hashtag (which was negative) was taken off the #MeetTheFarmers one (mostly positive) was allowed to remain in a move which is cynical, fools nobody and only highlights the fact that McDonald’s may have a Twitter account and a social media manager but has no sense of what social media actually is. Yet.

The year is still young and horror stories will abound. The social media bandwagon is too sweet to resist, so expect more abject lessons in the next few months.