Lessons from a Twitter firestorm
Kyle McCarthy
March 23, 2017

Small business owners know that crises don’t arrive when the phone rings. Phone calls are for plot reveals in movies; we’re too busy checking email.

Most of our days are spent interacting digitally with clients and customers, looking for ways to make those interactions more relevant and personal.  So when the Hootsuite app on my phone started pinging at 10:07 pm over dinner, the last thing I was expecting was a Tweetstorm.

For 20 years, I have run FamilyTravelForum.com, a community for those who "Have Kids, Still Travel" that has helped millions of travelers plan better family vacations – and helped travel partners reach them. We have survived the internet boom and the internet crash, plane hijackings, the demise of print and MySpace, 9/11, SARS, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic ash clouds, Zika – the list of travel-related plagues is endless.

On the night of Feb. 23, our Twitter stream was revealing, in real time, something new. It was a crisis of faith among our followers. They were "screaming" because my family-owned business, outspoken advocates for global travel, was advertising its service on alt-right media.

I contacted our social media manager,  that incredibly resourceful part-timer most small businesses rely on. She had just placed ads on Facebook to attract last-minute vacation planners to a roundup of Spring Break vacation ideas. What we didn’t know then was that Facebook’s Audience Network, an advertising tool established in May 2016 to expand Facebook’s reach, would place us on the controversial conservative site Breitbart.

We went into crisis-control mode. While her husband tucked in the kids, she quickly paused all the Facebook ads, scanning our five Twitter accounts and Facebook page as angry retweets and shares mounted. For us, it was Armageddon.

Understanding your customers is everything for a small business. We knew our audience of busy moms, dads, grandparents and their teens enjoys family vacation dreaming and planning in their spare time. Time and attention are very short; so is loyalty.

We also knew that the most engaged social followers, those who took the time to craft their own tweets and share with each other, were the ones we needed to reach out to first. We sent direct messages thanking them for the heads up, explaining our error, reaffirming our values, apologizing for the upset.  We posted public tweets when we felt our message could be conveyed clearly in 140 characters. We tried to leverage the loudest voices to calm the waters, as the worst of the Tweetstorm passed.  We crossed our fingers.

A few weeks have passed and we are still in business, somewhat wiser. In retrospect, here are some lessons we learned.

  • Understand how customers view your value proposition. Safety and health issues are so vital to family vacation planners that full disclosure about destinations, risks, border issues, culture clashes etc. has always been our standard. Perhaps that’s why our supposed partnership with Breitbart, a publisher known for its questionable policies on veracity, was such a flashpoint.
  • Understand your customers’ priorities. We were lucky the bad news hit in the evening when most of our audience would be busy with their families. That the Tweetstorm continued all night long -- crossing time zones -- was a big surprise, and a good lesson for us about our global reach, too.
  • Understand your limitations. As many resources as we invest in SEO, SEM, CRM and the other acronyms that rule small digital businesses, we now know we cannot control the cabal of algorithms.  You cannot prevent your scarce marketing dollars from leeching out to companies like Breitbart (or whoever represents the antithesis of your brand) by checking off the NO boxes on ad networks to gambling, alcohol, politics, sex, tobacco and other controversial topics most businesses don’t want to align with. Those algorithms will keep retargeting customers who meet your designated profile wherever they roam.
  • Understand when it’s time to stand down. As Day Two progressed and the retweets slowed down, we began seeing social chatter from the opposite side of the aisle: #BoycottFamilyTravelForum. Now we knew better than to engage. Our real audience was busy at work and at school. When they returned to planning their spring break vacation, hopefully it would be on FamilyTravelForum.com.

Small businesses don’t have recourse to spin control.

We learned the only way our business could afford to mitigate the brand damage was to go back to work, striving to exceed customer expectations, sharing the journey and, in the process, winning back our families’ loyalty.

And next time, we will market smarter.

Kyle McCarthy, author of a dozen Frommer's guidebooks and contributor to many publications, produces the award-winning Family Travel Forum and consults to the travel trade. To better understand the family market, join her at TMS Family Travel conferences and connect via @familytravel4um on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, Pinterest, Youtube and LinkedIn.