On Friday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak published a picture of himself on Twitter appearing to make a tea round for Treasury staff with a big bag of Yorkshire Tea:
Quick Budget prep break making tea for the team. Nothing like a good Yorkshire brew. pic.twitter.com/zhoQM9Ksho— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) February 21, 2020
The tweet received a huge amount of responses, with many saying they would boycott the brand due to assumed links with the Conservative Party.
Yorkshire Tea denied any such links existed, adding in an initial tweet: "There's no way we'd intentionally stick ourselves in a Twitter storm on a Friday afternoon. It's nearly home time!"
On Monday, Yorkshire Tea published a series of tweets reflecting on the impact that the responses have had on those handling the social media accounts, and urged people to "be kind".
But for anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company - please remember there's a human on the other end of it, and try to be kind.— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) February 24, 2020
It's not the first time in recent days that a brand has urged the public to be more mindful of the impact of negative comments on social media managers.
On Saturday, London North Eastern Railway tweeted:
In light of recent tragedies, people should realise the weight behind their words on social media. At the end of the day, every corporate social media channel is looked after by people just like you.— London North Eastern Railway (@LNER) February 22, 2020
So please, if nothing else, #BeKind.
Most comms professionals that responded to PRWeek's request for comment approved of how Yorkshire Tea responded.
"The honest and direct approach with which Yorkshire Tea responded is commendable," said Sinéad Gray, joint MD at Kindred.
"Monday’s thread deviates markedly from the usual Yorkshire Tea tone of voice on Twitter, but their witty response on Friday... did nothing to calm the vitriol being directed at them.
"The display of vulnerability feels authentic and acts as a timely reminder from a brand that employees with thoughts and feelings man their social accounts."
"Yorkshire Tea got it right," said Mark Borkowski, founder of PR agency Borkowski.
"Distancing themselves from the ‘game’ of politics rather than just the ‘player’ (Rishi Sunak or the Tories) kept them out of the tribal squalor of that world. Their language and tone was also much plainer-spoken than the usual corporate social media account. It came across as modest and human, which seems consistent with their values."
Solidari-TEA with Yorkshire Tea! ??Brilliant response and a friendly reminder there are people behind the social handles. pic.twitter.com/q4YIhu221F— RoosterPR (@RoosterPR) February 25, 2020
Loved it! ???? usually I’m not one for getting into things like this via business pages however, following recent tragic events and the #bekind movement which is throughout the media; it showed great initiative and togetherness! Well done @YorkshireTea— Jessica Inglis (@jessinglis_) February 25, 2020
Outstanding response, a brilliant idea to make it personal and give the thoughts and feelings of the person behind the account. Too often people believe corporate social media is a mindless robot they can abuse, forgetting the very real people behind it.— Stephen Canning (@EssexCanning) February 25, 2020
Neil McLeod, director of strategic comms at The PHA Group, said Yorkshire Tea reacted with "calm professionalism and humanity".
"The brand took a calculated risk when it engaged with criticism where many others would prefer not to. By meeting it head-on, Yorkshire Tea not only protected but enhanced its reputation.
"Its initial statement sought to quash thoughts it was involved in the endorsement – without falling onto one side of the political fence. The incident resulted in positive media coverage driven by the company doing the right thing and being human about it; referencing the mental health campaign related to Caroline Flack by asking followers to 'be kind' with a timely reminder that behind even corporate social media accounts are humans simply doing their job.
"Yorkshire Tea may not win back all the keyboard warriors who took to Twitter to level abuse, but it may have earned a new army of tea-drinking fans from all sides of the political spectrum.”
Dan Thompson, group account director at Third City, said: "What Yorkshire Tea did well, beyond humanising the person behind the account, was to not just chastise, but to thank those who had spoken up for them in a civil way. It was a subtle way of leading by example and referencing the #BeKind movement without feeling trivial.
"But what the replies to the thread prove is that even a balanced response doesn’t mean you avoid being read as political. Instead, the brand had a wave of people saying, ‘I agree, both sides in politics are terrible’. No matter how neutral you are, people will read a political brand purpose into your communications whenever you cross paths with the subject, begging the question: is it worth avoiding having an opinion in the first place?"
Step out of the ring
Salonee Gadgil, digital content director at Stand Agency, gave a mixed assessment.
Gadgil said the brand responded "reasonably well" to the situation. "Their thread posted on Monday comes across as sincere and reminds us about the 'social' in social media. We’re all people, even behind big brands and accounts with millions of followers. It was a well-intended message."
But, she added: "In my opinion and if I was managing Yorkshire Tea’s channels I would have avoided engaging with any comments made in response to Sunak’s tweet (the original one on the Friday). Yorkshire Tea was being attacked for everything from the number of tea bags in each pack, to the amount of plastic in each bag, to whether the tea is actually grown in Yorkshire. They tried fighting their corner, earnestly responding to negative comments… admirable. but probably entirely pointless.
"I would have recommended stepping out of the ring entirely and taking the high road. If nothing else, to protect the mental health of the people or person managing the channels. I would have asked everyone to log off and head to the pub!
Gadgil said waiting for the dust to settle would place Yorkshire Tea in a better position to respond with "something funny, clever or irreverent to the whole scrap – putting themselves above the petty arguments".
She added: "One measured message from them on their channels and on their own terms would have been wiser."