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throwing shade on social media

Throwing Shade on Social: Newsjacking and Negative PR

Mai Le

Apr 18, 2017

Following the kudos Wendy’s received by throwing shade on Twitter about McDonald’s current use of frozen beef, will more brands get bolder in calling out their competition?

Received wisdom is that it’s better to let the press and public opinion do the dirty work of negative PR. But, since Wendy’s was punching up in their rap-style Twitter-beef (pun fully intended), they may have been thinking they’ve got more to gain than to lose. Specifically, gains in Twitter cred, visibility, and followers. Given that’s exactly what happened, other brands are surely taking note. Let’s take a closer look at what’s worked.

The Blow by Blow?

Though McD’s 2016 revenue was close to 17 times that of Wendy’s and their worldwide locations outpace the redhead 6 to 1, on Twitter at least, the margins are slimmer, with Wendy’s at 1.65 million followers to 3.41 million for the golden arches. It’s important to note that Wendy’s didn’t use subterfuge, insults, or underhanded tactics. Instead, they seized on McDonald’s marketing language promising fresh beef by 2018 and with humor, pointed out the cracks in Mickey D’s business positioning. After all, bragging about the introduction of fresh beef means you haven’t been using it up until now. Wendy’s ran with it.

And with that reply tweet, a strategic trendjack—within three hours of a campaign that took significantly longer to produce — @Wendys sailed into a social media win with over 75k RTs and over 180k hearts. It’s not so surprising that social media is receptive to snarkiness.

throwing shade on social media Wendy's sentiment analysis

Taking Off the (Social Media Gloves) During a Crisis: The Case of United Airlines

It would’ve been hard to miss the two scandals that recently rocked United Airlines, considering the volume of above-the-fold headlines. Both center around United policies that seem to leave the service out of “customer service.” The first might be called “Leggings-gate” concerning enforcement of their dress code. While gender discrimination may have come into play, as dress codes aren’t uniformly enforced, the issue might have blown over (as minor brand crises do), except for the United Express Flight 3411 passenger dragging incident.

Subsequent non-apology, leak of an insensitive internal memo, as well as the launch of a smear campaign around the dragged passenger compounded the crisis surrounding United, with PR pros taking note.

One could almost hear knuckles cracking as other airlines swiftly went after United.

Again, not surprisingly, the funnier the jabs got, the more successful they were. The Southwest Airlines crew included colorful commentary on some flights and were the beneficiary of a spoof ad that has gone viral.

throwing shade on social South West

While they couldn’t resist chiming in, Delta, on the other hand, took the opportunity to highlight brand values; striking a more straightforward note.

United hasn’t come up for air yet as they try to stop the crisis spiralling, while ignoring the pile-on they’re receiving from competitors and consumers on social media.

Right now, while the United scandal is still fresh and public perception continues to tank, we won’t yet see the full benefits for the airlines employing this kicking-them-while-they’re-down tactic. But we do know that, so far this year, using similar practices have netted Twitter wins for both Wendy’s and Lyft.

Grabbing a Competitor’s Headlines

Since January, Lyft has been subtly boxing Uber. As crisis after crisis befell the leader in hailing apps (including, but not limited to: employee gender discrimination, treatment of drivers, a seat on the advisory board of the current Presidential administration, and breaking a taxi strike in NYC), Lyft put out a statement that reinforced their principles, without ever mentioning their competitor by name.

Logan Green, Lyft’s co-founder and CEO, tweeted late January that, “Trump’s immigration ban is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values.”

To further emphasize differences, Lyft made a public donation of one million to the ACLU, an organization responsible for bringing immigration ban lawsuits against the current administration (an issue that the NYC taxi strike addressed). Though they never mention Uber, Lyft used the increased visibility brought on by these crises to position themselves as their rival’s antithesis. With the positive affirmations from their ACLU donation, Lyft continues on this path, donating 20% of rides to the @LeanInOrg on Equal Pay Day.

Lyft’s agile comms team and leadership have crafted a PR strategy that shows, by example, that they share the #deleteUber crowd’s principles.

While loyal presidential administration consumers attempted a #deleteLyft campaign, it didn’t catch fire like #deleteUber has. Even with a backlash, the media coverage and Twitter praise are likely worth the strategic play of throwing shade on social.


2017 has ushered in a social media strategy that uses a competitor’s crisis or newsjacking to broadcast your brand values and elevate visibility. PR is no longer only about protecting your brand and broadcasting messages; it’s also about going for the jugular in pointing out how much better you are than a competitor. This is especially true if they’re facing scrutiny because of a crisis or a well-financed marketing campaign. Being nimble and doing this well is the key to success. That’s why you’ll need a media intelligence platform that is always listening for industry keywords, so when something happens to a competitor, you can work on the perfect snarky @ reply.