6 Classic Business Communication Fails (and 9 Ways to Avoid Them)


With the increase in communications channels connecting businesses and customers, it isn’t hard to find cringeworthy examples of business communication fails. Size, experience, success, public or private sector—none of it shields a company (or a U.S. president, for that matter) from the public humiliation that comes from stumbling in the public square. 

And when they do slip up, it’s usually traceable to some failure in their communication process. Here are a few examples of various business communications channels (email, social media, and branding/PR) and how they can go very, very wrong.

#1. Email Fails

Many souls in the business world dread hitting the “Send” button on an email. So much can go wrong once an email is sent out into the world. (Luckily, Google offers an “undo send” option for Gmail users.)

And then there’s the hated “Reply All” option. It definitely has its place, but most professionals wish their co-workers would deploy it with greater discretion.

Congratulations! You’re NOT accepted.

The University of California at San Diego sent an email congratulating students who were accepted to the university. The problem? The university fired off the email to ALL 47,000 applicants, including the tens of thousands who had already received rejection notices. This elicited confusion and outrage from students and parents.

The admissions director later apologized for the mix-up.

Your data’s safe with us . . .  

When your company’s unique selling point is security, the last thing you want to do is accidentally spill private data. This happened to security vendor McAfee after a conference. In an email thanking those who attended, a McAfee employee added a spreadsheet disclosing the names, contact information, and even the dietary requirements of conference-goers.

The company apologized and promised to take steps to prevent any future issues.

Business Communications Tip #1

Here are some tips to avoid an embarrassing attachment or a reply-all-pocalypse:

  • Before hitting “Send,” download any attachment to your own computer to verify you’ve attached the right document.
  • If you’re sending out a mass email, check every address, no matter how long the list. Only include those who actually need the email.
  • Just to be safe, hold off on adding any email address(es) to the “To” field until the email is written and ready to go, and after you’ve checked the attachments. That way you can’t accidentally shoot an unfinished or potentially damaging email into the world.
  • Enable the “undo send” setting in your Gmail account so you never have to suffer from sender’s regret.

#2. Social Media Fails

Social media is a double-edged sword. It can cut in your favor, providing unprecedented outreach and responsiveness to customers.

It can also take your hand off in the process.

Sadly, online efforts that produce satisfied customers, deliver excellent service or support, and garner community goodwill don’t receive much attention. It’s the big missteps, the foul-ups, the accidental retweets, and the hacked accounts that win the most attention. Like in these two cases:

Ask me about anything—except that.

JP Morgan isn’t the first company to open itself up to public ridicule through a social media campaign. Other examples include #McDStories, and #iatethebones. But in the case of #AskJPM, JP Morgan opened up its Twitter feed for a live Q & A session with its vice chairman. Before the session could start, online trolls began peppering JP Morgan with over 18,000 tweeted questions about the bank’s ethics, a spate of recent scandals, and impending criminal investigations into its practices:

JP Morgan called off the Q & A session within hours of announcing it.

Not safe for scanning.

Heinz Ketchup started a campaign where customers scanned a QR code located on the back label of the company’s ketchup bottles. The code took customers to a promotional website. At least, it did until the promotion ended and Heinz allowed its URL registration to lapse. Another company then took over the URL, and when a Heinz customer later scanned the code, he discovered something a lot spicier than ketchup on the webpage.

Heinz apologized and sent the customer a free bottle of ketchup.

Business Communications Tip #2

It’s too easy to mess up a social media campaign. Avoid potential pitfalls by:

  • Anticipating the trolls. Imagine how the most loathsome Internet troll might mangle your campaign. You either need to have a plan in place to handle any potential hijacking, or come up with another campaign that won’t leave you so vulnerable.
  • Not opening your personal social media accounts when you’re posting to a company account. Too many mistakes happen when someone posts to what they think is their personal account, but it’s actually the company account.
  • Checking and double-checking links and hashtags. Make sure the links take customers to the right locations. And always investigate hashtags to make sure you’re not linking your campaign to an unsavory trend.

#3. Branding/Public Relations Fails

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Brands achieve relevancy and heightened media presence when they take risks, say something different, and distinguish themselves from the competition. But as with any risk, it can backfire. Badly.

Too soon, man. Too soon.

When a company wants to pay tribute to a recently deceased celebrity, it has to walk a razor’s edge. You can’t look like you’re exploiting someone’s death to sell more product. For an example, take Cheerios. The company made the mistake of posting a “Rest in peace” tweet paying tribute to the passing of Prince. In the tweet, the company punctuated the “i” with a Cheerio. This proved too much for fans who took to Twitter to cry foul.

Cheerios quickly deleted the tweet and apologized.

Doesn’t matter if they’re the best buns, this is poor taste.

Another example of this is Cinnabon’s recent attempt to commemorate Carrie Fisher’s death. It posted a tweet with a stylized illustration of Carrie Fisher in her role as Princess Leia, with a Cinnabon roll standing in for the buns she styled in A New Hope. The tweet read: “RIP Carrie Fisher, you’ll always have the best buns in the galaxy.”

Cinnabon deleted the tweet and posted an apology, stating that they only meant it as a tribute.

Business Communications Tip #3

Don’t try anything remotely market-y when you want to weigh in on a tragedy. You risk coming across as callous and out of touch. Want your brand to appear more personable? Keep such tributes simple. DON’T look for cute ways to work your product into the story. Simply express heartfelt sentiment, support, and well wishes, without looking like you’re working some angle.

The two commandments to avoid business communications fails.

No matter what business channel you’re using, or how you’re using them, there are two sure-fire ways to make sure you don’t fall on your face.

Proof everything. Don’t hit “Send,” “Submit,” or “Post” until you’ve reviewed text, email address, images, links, hashtags—everything. It doesn’t hurt to ask: “How can this possibly go wrong?”

Transparency and sincerity will win the day. Where you can, keep your communications as personable and human as possible. Make a real effort to be honest and transparent. The more human and sincere your brand comes across, the easier it will be—if you happen to suffer a business communication fail—to own up to your mistake, apologize, and move on,

Avoid more business communications fails by downloading our Bible of Business Communications.

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