On Friday (21 February), chancellor Rishi Sunak posted a picture of himself on Twitter appearing to make tea 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 these links, 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 staff handling social media 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.
The majority of brands would not allow social media managers to give such a "human" response to trolling as Yorkshire Tea did, according to Josh Benge, brand engagement manager, social, gaming and partnerships, at KFC UK and Ireland.
KFC had a similar experience to Yorkshire Tea in September 2019, when the Conservatives depicted Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a chicken for not backing a general election.
The Tories tweeted KFC about it and, with a nod to the fast-food chain, labelled Corbyn "JFC":
KFC reacted with humour:
This is KFC not LBC don’t @ me.— KFC UK & Ireland (@KFC_UKI) September 6, 2019
Benge told Campaign sister title PRWeek: "We'd seen the post go live and we'd seen it was getting quite a lot of traction, and that we were being tagged and tagged. Usually we'll stay away from political stuff for obvious reasons, but we'd been so explicitly called out that we knew we needed to respond.
"We'd started to see quite a lot of negative pick-up in the responses as well, much like Yorkshire Tea has. A lot of people had assumed we had an affiliation with the Conservatives as a result – which of course is not the case – and, as such, anyone opposed to the Conservatives was giving us quite a hard time."
Regarding KFC's response, Benge said: "We knew we had to do something that was different for us without being too harsh or too cutting. We knew we had to do something that was funny and within our internal voice to make light of the whole thing.
"It took quite a long time to write that – and quite a few eyeballs to get it over the line."
He said Yorkshire Tea was right to take a different tactic.
"They had a post of the politician with their product – that just looks like an affiliation straight away. It almost looks like it's been paid for, the way that it's been positioned.
"I feel that for them to write back in a more human tone of voice, and be quite open about 'I'm a person', was a good move."
Benge has sympathy for Yorkshire Tea, saying he has also dealt with nasty comments at KFC.
"We get both sides of the coin. We have lots of really positive, fun stuff going through social, but we also have the other side that Yorkshire Tea are seeing at the moment.
"It can build up and it can be quite tough on an individual who's doing that reporting day in, day out."
He said KFC will "empower" its social media handlers to be "more firm or more human" when people are "extreme in the language they use or in their reaction to quite a small issue".
Benge continued: "We're in this world of 'the customer is always right', which is almost always the right way of thinking. But, in those instances, we like to empower our team to write back, even with a bit of comedy if it's right, or to be a little bit firmer than usual. It's a very delicate line you've got to tread – it's always a tricky one."
The posts from Yorkshire Tea and LNER come amid the backlash in some quarters against "toxic" social media comments following the death of former Love Island presenter Caroline Flack.
Asked if there's more acceptance now that brands can "take on" trolls and be more "human" in responses, Benge said: "I think there's definitely more of a focus on it from an internal point of view – absolutely.
"I think people are coming to realise the social sphere can be quite nasty at times – that can affect people and how they work.
"When it comes to airing those publicly, I don't think there's much change. It's good to see someone like Yorkshire Tea doing that, but for most businesses you'll have to look after the needs of your customer first and foremost, and you have a brand to represent and a tone of voice to protect. I don't think many brands would allow social media managers to be as human as Yorkshire Tea does. There may be a small change, but nothing really just yet."