April 12, 2012 at 12:08 PM ET
Updated 2:39 p.m. EDT: In a statement, KFC parent company Yum! Brands said, “KFC Thailand expresses its sincere regret for the improper post on its Facebook page and apologizes for the insensitivity and timing of the message.”
Never mind drumsticks — KFC Thailand stuck its foot in its mouth with a post on Facebook exhorting customers to go buy KFC after an 8.6 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia triggered fears of a tsunami like the one that devastated the area in 2004.
While evacuations were taking place, the company posted this oddly upbeat missive: "Let's hurry home and follow the earthquake news. And don't forget to order your favorite KFC menu," the AP reported. When consumers took to social media sites to voice their displeasure, KFC Thailand took down the post and issued apologies.
Callous as it was, this was far from the first marketing belly flop corporations have executed as they try to balance the off-the-cuff immediacy of social media with the risk of saying something stupid — and having the world know — in real time.
"That real-time nature of it has got to give marketers pause to be smart about how they're responding in real time," says Glen Gilmore, a social media strategist and professor of digital marketing at Rutgers University. "Unfortunately, it's a message too many marketers have not yet learned."
Following the devastating earthquake in Japan last year, Microsoft tweeted a plan to match donations — along with a plug for its search engine Bing. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBCUniversal.)
When singer Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27, a U.K. public relations firm issued a tweet urging fans to remember her — by downloading her music.
Accessories designer Kenneth Cole elicited anger when it used the hashtag "Cairo" last spring during the Egyptian uprising to promote its new merchandise. "Millions are in uproar... Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online," the company tweeted. It later backpedaled with an online apology from the designer.
More recently, the Facebook pages of Arizona Iced Tea and Skittles candy were inundated with angry responses after each brand posted a question asking what fans would do for their last bottle or bag, shortly after teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed while holding the two snacks.
Marketers just can't resist the temptation to jump into trending conversations, Gilmore said, but expressing the wrong sentiment can do more harm than good.
"It's completely irresponsible because when the loss of human life, a struggle for freedom, a disaster… is what the trending topic is, everyone should respect the fact that the conversation shouldn't be hijacked to sell a few buckets of chickens or some shoes," he said.