Brands: Step up your game, ‘cause social media isn’t having it.

It has been quite a few days hasn’t it? Between Pepsi’s tone-deaf call for unity, to United’s forcible removal of a passenger, and non-apology to that customer (Plus all of these reminders of advertising gone wrong), it seems like everyone is talking about how these brands royally screwed up and damaged their brands to the point of no return by being inauthentic and hollow.

Brands do good things, but they also make mistakes because the people behind them are human and as we all know, humans fail all the time. Maybe Pepsi forgot to ask activists on the front lines what the tension of a protest feels like before they had Kendall Jenner hand a cop a soda can. Maybe United was concerned with the potential for being sued if it just apologized (cause that means it’s their fault, right? Corporations don’t make mistakes!). It doesn’t excuse their terrible narratives, but it does explain why mistakes and missteps happen. Advertisers can be closed-minded because they’re trying to sell an idea. PR people can be closed-minded because they’re trying to get their client out of the woods of a crisis. The issue now for brands is that their mistakes aren’t written off and forgiven — they’re kept alive with the quips, memes and gifs from consumers who are paying attention, and are ready to call out inauthentic content, or insincere apologies from corporations (and their PR firms) who should know better.

The internet NEVER forgets. I will fly Southwest forever though.

Social media has changed everything about the way we interact with our favorite brands. Instead of the barrier of a glossy ad in a magazine, or the scale of a billboard, we’re a wifi connection and Twitter account away from reaching out directly to the brands we love (and don’t). Think about it — 10 years ago, if a brand made a mistake, it probably wasn’t the first thing that people gabbed about online. If it was big enough, it may have made the front page of a newspaper (or a page), and maybe it was water cooler talk at work first thing in the morning, but it wasn’t a 24 hour trending topic on Facebook and Twitter, it probably didn’t have a million think pieces, and it didn’t have the potential for people to spread it and share it with their friends so rapidly.

More and more we’re adopting social networks and our usage is not going anywhere. The world is at our fingertips — always.

A good deal of us are socially minded and paying attention to our news feeds. On Facebook and Instagram, three-quarters of us who use it, use it daily, and we’re diverse — we tend to use multiple platforms to share our content and interact online. A majority of Americans now get their news from social media, instead of traditional media sources, and we’re even using it at work more than we have in the past. On Twitter, more than 7,000 tweets are shared per second. We are immersed in social media, and we’re hypersensitive to the latest headlines — especially when we have a strong reaction to them. For brands, that means a chance to reach consumers at any time, but it also means that when mistakes are made, people are watching closely, and ready to drag you.

Oh, Pepsi. Sometimes the real story is better than the commercial we imagine around the round table?

So, why aren’t consumers having it?

People can’t be fooled anymore, and consumers can see right through an inauthentic response whether it tries too hard, or doesn’t try at all. In the case of United, they had to issue two apologies before they got it right. Instead of saying something like “this shouldn’t happen to anyone and we’re sorry. We’ll fix this,” they blamed the customer first. It made people upset not because of the “customer is always right” mentality, but because the passenger was asked to volunteer, declined, but was still physically harmed, and United didn’t really seem to care all that much. Their first apology didn’t express any empathy for the passenger even though the incident happened on their watch, in their plane. To a consumer, you feel like “this could happen to me, and no one would care about it.” It makes you lose any confidence you had in a company, and stirs up negative sentiment that may not go away.

So brands, remember that the people who follow you online are just as much a part of your story as your own brand story. Do your research, bring them in, be sincere, and pay attention.

The people who follow and share your content can make or break the way your story is remembered. It doesn’t matter how perfectly crafted your brand story is if you don’t include people vital to that narrative, and it isn’t true and authentic of you. Unfortunately for both United and Pepsi, consumers may have negative feelings toward their brands for a long, long time, and the quips, gifs, memes and tweets will be forever immortalized in hashtags and timelines.