How to Handle a PR
and Social Media Nightmare

How to Handle a PR and Social Media Nightmare
By Rachel Healy

Talk about the spaghetti hitting the fan!

Classic Italian pasta maker Barilla recently found itself in proverbial hot water and was forced to apologize after its chairman was quoted as saying that the “classic” family remains one of the company’s basic values and same-sex families have no place in its advertising.

He added insult to injury by going on to say that gay consumers could eat another brand of pasta if they didn’t like his traditional views which, as an outsider looking in, seems like bad business sense to me.

Cue immediate backlash around the world through the corporate blessing and curse that is social media, with the hashtag #BoycottBarilla trending on Twitter faster than it takes a pot of said proverbial hot water to boil, followed by an onslaught of disgruntled customers voicing their outrage on Facebook, in the news, and to anyone who’d listen about CEO Guido Barilla’s “coming out” by airing his dirty “bigotoni” laundry for all the world to see.

Critics wasted no time dumping the offending blue packets of gluten ungodliness in the trash or down the toilet and posting their pictures on Instagram, which seems impractical for a number of reasons. Food banks may be a better option folks, there are still starving people in the world after all.

There was even a spoof ad made by Adam Dubowsky and Jacob Soboroff of TakePart Live, with the slogan “Barilla: the pasta every gay man loves to eat.” You know you’ve outdone yourself when spoofs are made of your idiocy within 24 hours (ahem, Kanye West).

Although the PR machine behind the fiasco chugged into action and saw sense enough to pump out an apology on their Italian Twitter and Facebook pages—hastily adding the quote from Barilla; “I have the utmost respect for gay people and for everyone’s right to express themselves.”—the company’s U.S. social media accounts have thus far remained silent. Which is beyond baffling as Barilla represents about half of the Italian pasta market and a quarter of the American market.

Of course, rival pasta makers were quick to muddy the ragu, with Bertolli posting an image of noodles of all different varieties happily paired together and heading into a big pot of sauce, accompanied by the message; “Pasta and love for all!” on its German Facebook page.

Blatantly stirring the pot.

That’s another thing. I’ve never seen or heard so many pasta puns in the space of 48 hours. From the “anti-gay pasta” panel discussion on new CTV show The Social, to the backlash costing the company “a pretty penne”, which was regurgitated across numerous media outlets. (Mostly in traditional papers and TV. C’mon newshounds, step it up, we social media fiends are embarrassing you and adding salt to the wound.) Too far, right?

This is not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last, that there’s been a food fight between the all-important corporate messaging behind brands and some ignorant employee who thinks the Internet is an anonymous place where nothing will ever be recorded and you can get away with anything … even when posting a picture of YOURSELF doing something unsavoury on your own PUBLIC social media account.

Amy’s Baking Company will forever go down in PR history annals as the antithesis of how to handle a social media meltdown, after Gordon Ramsay walked out on the owners in a first for his hit reality show ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ back in May, due to their appalling customer service. Responses to their critics included; “GO TO SLEEP YOU LITTLE KIDS! DREAM ABOUT BEING SUCCESSFUL BECAUSE WE HAVE A MULTI MILLION BUSINESS WITH SUPPORTERS! YOU CANT BRING US DOWN” [sic.] And yes, they used all caps for maximum shouty effect. You can read the full diatribe here.

And it’s not all food-related either. There have been far too many disastrously ill-timed tweets in the wake of tragic world events, from designer Kenneth Cole tweeting; “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online,” in reference to the Arab Spring. Or the always controversial National Rifle Association tweeting; “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” The morning after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012.

So, just what is the moral of this sad story that seems to be playing out again and again in real-time?

First, don’t comment on anything that you think may be construed as offensive to the common man (or woman for that matter), especially as the face of a brand, and even if you’re the owner. That’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. If anything, it’s your responsibility more than anyone to hold the moral ground. The customer is always king, so your attempt at honesty, authenticity or ‘standing out from the crowd’ is not going to earn you any brownie points (end of food references, I promise.)

Secondly, if you screw up, apologize immediately. IMMEDIATELY, ya hear! It may seem obvious, and even transparent as people will know that any kind of backtracking is ultimately just a form of damage control, but for most of us it won’t matter. We all like to hear “I’m sorry,” sometimes even when it’s not necessarily true (men, take note, this simple tip could save you a lot of time and bother.) Most fracas will be forgotten in the ether of 58 million tweets sent per day, faster than you can type a 140 character insult, but only if you retract everything you said, and quickly. Paula Deen learned this the hard way.

And that’s really the beauty of social media. A global topic of discussion can explode within seconds to bring the blogosphere, Twitterverse and Facebook-black-hole to the point of implosion, but an effective response can resolve the matter more often than not, before the average Internet user has even noticed what’s happened.

It’s a double-edged sword, but learn how to wield it wisely and you can become the modern day Yoda of the world wide web. May the force be with you…

Rachel Healy is a Corporate Communications & Social Media Manager. Find her at and on Twitter: @RachelHealyIre

Photo Credit: Southern Fairytale (Rachel) via Photo Pin | Creative Commons


  1. A colleague of mine wrote an excellent piece on how to respond to a communications crisis on social media: Her take is that it’s the PR team’s responsibility to have a crisis communications strategy in place, and that the social media manager’s job is to alert the PR team to the situation and stick to the message given by the PR team. 
    I also heard an interesting comment from a LinkedIn post this week, that many legal teams will argue against apologizing, as it may admit guilt (think of a situation where your product may have caused a fatality, as an extreme example) – but that the social media manager should always work with the cross-teams to ensure that the brand responds appropriately in our social world.