What is a Shitstorm?

In the business world, a shitstorm is the massive and public criticism of a company, product or public person. It is often carried out on social networks and in some cases, goes viral. The phenomenon is usually triggered by an initial criticism, justified or not. Following this, other people get involved and the original comment is lost as the situation becomes increasingly aggressive and/or abusive. Additionally, in PR circles it is often deemed as being a brand’s “worst nightmare”.


What Can be Done?

Considering how damaging a shitstorm can be to a business it is essential that the criticism be taken seriously and dealt with. Putting your head in the sand is not the way to go. Conversely, reacting emotionally or hastily should be avoided in some situations as well. Oftentimes, waiting until the storm has died down, at least a little, can give you a wider view of the situation. Some companies may have a dedicated PR team that can provide expert advice. However, not all organisations have that luxury.

Being Proactive

So what action should be considered and taken? If a shitstorm is getting extremely out of control, threatening, personal, or aggressive then immediate action is needed. This could include using social media tools to remove and ban certain people. Additionally, informing law enforcement where applicable, and reminding people that the personal or threatening nature of their comments is not acceptable can be a good first move. Where this isn’t needed a different approach can be taken.

  • Respond
  • Hoping things will die down and not affect the company is not a smart move. By responding you can stop the spread of the shitstorm and address any issues or misunderstandings.
  • Take Responsibility
  • It’s easy to get emotionally involved and become defensive but this is only going to lead to arguments. Trying to blame someone or something else will make you look like you’re making excuses.
  • Apologise
  • Even if you think it’s not your or the company’s fault an apology will go a long way to making customers feel better. It shows that the company is owning the problem and that you’re also not happy with the situation.
  • Communicate
  • Don’t just apologise and leave, explain what you’ll do to put things right. This may include taking feedback on board, fixing an error or changing a process. Either way, keep customers reassured by updating them as to what is being done to resolve the situation.

    Prevention is Better Than Cure

    The above saying means that it’s easier to stop something from happening than try and deal with the damage once it’s been done. Therefore, this applies very well to these kinds of disasters. Making sure a shitstorm doesn’t happen in the first place can save a lot of time, money and, most importantly, help reputation! For many large businesses and organisations the possibility of a shitstorm is high so prevention is necessary. Social media is a great way to promote but it can lead to everyone knowing quickly and in large number when you make a mistake.

    Red Flags

    For example, if a customer receives a product and they’re unhappy they can post to social media and their post can be shared far and wide. This can have negative results on a brand’s reputation. However, things don’t always have to be this way. Keeping a close eye on social media is vital, hiring a social media manager or team can mean any complaints are addressed and resolved quickly. Additionally, having someone lookssssssssssss out for any red flags can help. Also, it’s very wise to have a strategy in place for when a storm is brewing. Finally, organisations must use a reputable company if they wish to outsource their social media management or vet their workers carefully.

    After the Shitstorm has Passed

    Once the crisis has been resolved a company should not make the mistake of relaxing their efforts or lowering their efforts. Just because one shitstorm has been handled doesn’t mean another can’t happen in the future. Therefore, it’s best to learn from the situation and know what to look out for. Spotting any red flags in the future can mean the storm is avoided. Additionally, if there was anything that could have been handled differently then use this information to create future preventative strategies.

    Shitstorms in Crowdsourcing

    Crowdsourcing is not immune to the concept of shitstorms. In fact, it’s something that must be taken quite seriously when companies ask consumers to partake in ideas and suggestions. Handing over ideas for your products and services to the general public can go very wrong if certain boundaries aren’t set. If a company wants to use the creativity of the crowd for its product development, it must provide clear rules that guarantee transparency from the very start. Unfortunately, even some of the largest companies out there have fallen foul of this. Of course, this then results in a shitstorm that may make the brand look ridiculous or paint them in a negative light.

    Never Ignore Customers!

    An example of this is when Pril (a dishwashing detergent brand) held a crowdsourced design contest for a limited edition bottle. Pril unleashed a storm of protest after it removed initially eligible but seemingly unsuitable designs and deleted all the user votes and finally sharpened the rules of the contest. As expected, negative comments piled up on Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately, Pril reacted by censoring the comments instead of engaging in an open discussion. The company made practically every mistake possible and created their own sustainable PR disaster.

    More Shitstorm Examples in Crowdsourcing


    Considering some of the brightest minds work for NASA they certainly didn’t think when they held a contest to name a section of the International Space Station. TV host and comedian Stephen Colbert thought it would be funny to tell his fan base to vote for his name. This resulted in his name being voted for six times more than all other options. Of course, NASA wasn’t happy with this and declined to honour the winners. This made some quite unhappy at the organisation. This could have been avoided had they only allowed people to vote from a specific set of names. Alternatively, some thought there was no real harm in naming the section “Stephen” but NASA ultimately disagreed.


    Interestingly, this is a similar situation to NASA above. Vegemite asked the public to name their new cream cheese product. Again, instead of letting people choose from set names, they left the naming wide open! Kraft, who makes the product, decided not to do the same as NASA and choose a different name than the winners. This resulted in them producing “iSnack 2.0”. Many thought it was a joke but it wasn’t and it was actually produced. Furthermore, the head of corporate affairs stated that the name had relevance and identified the product as being “…new and different to the original”. However, many thought the name to be ridiculous and after it failed to sell it was renamed “Cheesybite”.

    Time Magazine

    Known across the world, Time magazine is known for its “Person of the Year” awards. This is usually attributed to a very influential person who has made great achievements in the year. One year they decided to let the public vote for the “World’s Most Influential Person” award. Unsurprisingly, the results were not as they had hoped as again, they hadn’t considered setting any boundaries. This resulted in 4Chan founder “Moot” being awarded the prize much to the annoyance of many readers.